Getting People Moving in Lincoln County, West Virginia

March 25, 2011

At Center Point United Baptist Church in Lincoln County, West Virginia, 18 parishioners are feeling lighter than they did 11 weeks ago — 250 pounds lighter, to be exact. And it’s thanks, in part, to the 2010 County Health Rankings.

The weight-loss group, the brainchild of the church’s associate pastor Jason Cook, is just one example of the small-scale health-improvement efforts taking place in the community in the wake of the rankings.

Lincoln County ranked 50th overall among West Virginia’s 55 counties, and placed 54th for its health behaviors (most notably, high rates of both adult smoking and adult obesity). According to a local health official, the results, while not a surprise, were disheartening  — but they also offered the opportunity to empower the community.

“I thought, ‘That’s embarrassing,’ ” said J. Loren Smith, the county health department’s physician director and health officer, who also uses data from the Center for Disease Control to gauge the area’s health parameters. “However, it’s embarrassing only if you stay there and don’t do anything about it. It truly gave us a stimulus to do something to affect some change.”

To start, Smith, Lincoln County Health Department administrator Joe Huff, and part-time health coordinator Ric MacDowell organized a November health summit meeting, open to anyone in the community. There, they shared the data, then dubbed the meeting’s attendees “stakeholders” and charged them with sponsoring health-improvement projects in the county.

“We asked people to break into groups and brainstorm ideas of what might be done, and then to make a commitment to go to whatever organization they felt most connected with and ask that organization to adopt a project,” MacDowell said.

The goal, according to Smith, is to help community members feel accountable for the area’s health, and in doing so, help change ideas of what, exactly, health means.

“I feel there’s a very poor perception in the county in terms of what we eat; we don’t have many gardens, we don’t exercise like we should, we don’t have programs to take care of drug addicts,” Smith said. “So what we are trying to accomplish is to change the perception of what health is.”

About 15 stakeholders signed on at the first summit meeting, submitting projects ranging from constructing walking and bicycle trails to church nursing programs and additional substance abuse support groups. Stakeholders are asked to update MacDowell periodically on their progress; a process he hopes will maintain the momentum from the summit.

“I think it certainly motivated the stakeholders to come together, and I think it prompted them to encourage their groups to do something,” he said of the meeting.

That was the case for Cook, who said he wouldn’t have come up with the idea for his church weight-loss group without being prompted by the health summit. To motivate his parishioners, Cook focused on the connection between physical and spiritual health.

“I just think of it in terms of balance,” he said. “If one part of your being is out of balance, it’s going to affect the other parts. So that’s the approach I took with it to overcome some initial hesitation.”

Cook put the group on a 16-week cycle, which will conclude in May. Every Sunday, each member sends him an email with their weight-loss stats; occasionally, the group will meet to discuss health issues such as nutrition or healthy eating. The challenge has spawned two exercise groups and, according to Cook, has motivated multiple other congregation members to make healthy changes on their own.

“It inspired about 20 or 30 other people who were unsure about signing up for a group, even though they’re not officially on the list to go along with us,” he said. “The impact has been bigger than 18 people.”

This trickle-down effect — getting individual community members excited about their projects and letting that enthusiasm spread throughout the county — is the entire point, according to Smith and Huff. The men hope to hold a second phase of the health summit in the spring where current stakeholders can share their experiences and thoughts on the process with new members; ultimately, the hope is to engage enough county residents to eventually change some of the area’s health concerns and, by extension, improve its county health ranking.

“Our role is to keep the summit alive and to continue to revisit the summit so that we keep it fresh in the minds of the stakeholders and the community,” Huff said. “It also gives us the opportunity to share successes. I’m absolutely confident that we will continue the work and that we will see positive results as an outcome. We at the health department are absolutely dedicated to it.”

Smith agreed. “I am optimistic, but I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said. “I feel that it’s something that’s going to take awhile to develop and continue to pursue, so I’m not going to give up on it.”

And neither is Cook. “I’m definitely going to choose another project,” he said. “I plan to continuously keep a project going with the church.”