June 27, 2008

It's time to take Kentucky's health problems seriously, according to experts in University of Kentucky Family and Consumer Sciences, and they've come up with a big plan to bring attention to the subject.

Second Sunday, a statewide event designed to get Kentuckians on their feet and moving, is planned for Oct. 12. Organized by specialists and agents in the family and consumer sciences arm of the UK Cooperative Extension Service, the idea is to work with local officials to close a road or roads in each county for a few hours on the second Sunday in October. This will allow people to get out and exercise in a fun, safe, community-friendly environment.

Janet Kurzynske, chair of the Nutrition and Food Science Department in the School of Human Environmental Sciences, is an expert in the area of obesity. She said the problem of obesity affects Kentuckians across the board, presenting one of the most important health challenges of our time.

"Two thirds of us are overweight or obese. It's our children, and it's our adults. It doesn't matter what race a person is. Poverty doesn't make a difference; the rich are just as overweight as the poor," she said.

Kentucky is consistently ranked among the top 10 states for obesity and obesity-related diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. These health-related problems are some of those that UK President Lee T. Todd, Jr. has labeled as the Kentucky Uglies - problems that the university is uniquely positioned to overcome.

"This event is a great example of how Kentucky's flagship university is working to solve some of Kentucky's most pressing problems," Todd said. "And, as usual, the event is led by the university's most trusted ambassadors, our Cooperative Extension Service. UK extension agents have been connecting our classrooms and laboratories to Kentucky communities for years, and I am glad they remain committed to helping us make the Commonwealth a healthier place for all of our citizens."

Family and consumer sciences specialists and agents have already made an impact in the state through their ongoing nutrition programs, but Kurzynske thinks the solution goes beyond watching what's on our plates. It's her belief that communities must seriously consider the effects the built environment is having on their citizens and on their activities and eating habits.

The National Institutes of Health include within the term "built environment" homes, schools, workplaces, parks and recreation areas, greenways, business areas and transportation systems. Focusing on how people access services and move around between home, school, work and play can have a real impact on the energy people expend. And expending physical energy promotes good health.

"People in cities get more exercise than people in suburbs and rural areas because they don't get their car out, if they even have a car," Kurzynske said. "It's too much trouble. It's much easier to walk."

With Second Sunday, family and consumer sciences extension personnel are hoping to encourage local counties and communities to re-examine their built environment to make it easier for people to get out of their homes and exercise. This could mean providing bike lanes on local roads, having stores within walking distances, or going so far as to build trails for pedestrians and cyclists.

"I think most local officials know that in their communities there is not a lot of access to inexpensive physical activity endeavors. And in every community they know their health is so dismal. And this is a way to jumpstart it," Kurzynske said.

At a recent built environment conference, organizers gave participants ideas about funding sources to improve the built environment, as well as inexpensive ideas about using existing infrastructure, such as mall walking. Kurzynske said that by making a map showing the number of steps or miles or calories burned, a community could provide the motivation to exercise without the outlay of much money. Clark County has provided a walking trail for its residents simply by mowing a path through farmland to which they've been given access.

"This doesn't have to be a multimillion dollar endeavor," she said. "It can be as simple as mowing a path."

The idea for Second Sunday came about from a conversation between Kurzynske and Lexington Fayette Urban County Councilman Jay McChord. She and the family and consumer sciences planning committee are working closely with McChord and Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry to create an event that will not only raise awareness throughout the state, but also lead the way for the rest of the country.

"There is no better time than the present to bring about change. We can't wait," she said. "Kentucky is serious. We want to change our circumstances."

For information about Second Sunday in your area, contact the local extension office.