Focusing on Unhealthy Behaviors in Muskegon County, Michigan

January 20, 2011

When the 2010 County Health Rankings were released, Muskegon County’s Healthy on the Shore coalition was already in the planning stages. But the information in the Rankings — where the Michigan county ranked 64th in health outcomes and 70th in health behaviors, out of 82 counties — helped reinforce the need for the task force, focusing on improving unhealthy behaviors in the area.

“We already had it in the works, but the ranking probably pushed us in the direction of saying, ‘We really need to do something,’ “ said Jeff Fortenbacher, CEO of Access Health, a health coverage program for low-income workers based in Muskegon and a coalition member organization. “So we started looking at the way we could embed it in a partnership.”

Other coalition members include United Way of the Lakeshore, marketing firm Relevant, hospital system Mercy Health Partners and the Employers Association of West Michigan — a diverse group designed to be able to reach residents in multiple arenas.

The coalition began in September by targeting health behaviors in the workplace via an eight-week corporate challenge, where four-person teams from area businesses pledged to complete daily goals of walking at least 10,000 steps, drinking 64 ounces of water and upping fruit and vegetable intake to two to three cups per person.

About 325 four-person teams participated, Fortenbacher said.

“That was 1,000-plus people that became more physically active,” he said. “It did provide an incentive for people to get involved, to get partnerships at work, to get them more motivated to continue and follow through.”

A second, four-week corporate challenge kicked off in January; a third began at the beginning of March. The idea, according to Fortenbacher, is to keep employees engaged by having a consistent line-up of upcoming health activities.

“It’s an issue of sustainability, to get people involved so they keep on going,” he said. “You go four weeks on, four weeks off for a challenge, and we’ll keep putting different activities in those challenges.”

Targeting the workplace is a natural choice, Fortenbacher added, because people spend so much of their lives there — so reinforcing healthy behaviors at the office can help change behaviors at home.

“The key thing is, how do you keep it so it becomes sustainable and ingrained into people’s daily living skills? That’s where you need a lot of things pushing on the individuals and creating that environment that moves people towards making healthier choices, whether it’s walking or eating healthy,” he said. “The workplace is an important starting point, because that’s where people are captured for seven, eight or nine hours a day. You have a central place where you can at least get their attention.”

Next, coalition members hope to hold a health summit to recruit new membership organizations , Fortenbacher said.

“We’ve invited about 150 key people in leadership roles in the community,” he said. “We’d like to set a goal that Muskegon wants to become the healthiest county in Michigan, and then start to look at the specific things that will need to happen on a community level to start us moving in that direction. The coalition is the first run at it, and we will now need to expand it — but this is exactly what we hoped for when we started out with the corporate health challenge.”

It’s a goal, he added, that will be aided immensely by the data contained in the County Health Rankings.

“The rankings are definitely a key part of it,” he said.