The best information on children’s health in San Antonio and Bexar County doesn’t come from local hospitals, school systems, or the City’s health department. It comes from H-E-B Body Adventure at The Witte Museum, the venerable institution founded in 1926 and located at the northern edge of Brackenridge Park.
The Witte, known to generations of visitors for its dinosaurs, Fiesta gowns, and Texas heritage collection, is most currently known for the cranes and earthmovers of its $100 million expansion along Broadway.
Fortunately for the general public, the portions of the Witte that face the San Antonio River have remained open throughout the construction. Tucked into the southwest corner of the property, next to the historical H-E-B Science Tree House, is the new, multi-story H-E-B Body Adventure where de-identified or anonymous health information on local residents is continually monitored and, in the words of Witte President and CEO Marise McDermott, “school children and families are having a blast.”
The H-E-B Body Adventure is a modular interactive, electronic, hands-on experience for both children and adults that involves activities like working off the calories of a soda on a step machine, dissecting the human body at a simulated autopsy table under the supervision of UT medical students, and being hooked up with electrodes that translate brain waves into magnetic impulses that move ping-pong balls across a table in a high-tech meditation game called “Relax to Win.”
During each of the modular experiences, data is collected that cumulatively describes the health of a large cross-section of our youth. In the first two years of operation, more than 314,000 people passed through the Body Adventure exhibit, 69% of whom were school-aged children from every school district in Bexar County. Class trips built into curricula and The Witte’s Free Tuesdays promote equitable attendance among all social strata and more balanced distribution by zip code and Council district. A recent Harvey Najim Family Foundation grant subsidizes transportation costs for children from under-represented schools.
The H-E-B Body Adventure data paints a detailed, accurate, and representative picture of the health of our youth at any point in time and over time. Bryan Bayles, The Witte’s Curator of Anthropology and Health, presented the data for year two on Tuesday.
Highlights included 47% of children age 8-18 reporting that they have lots of fun and safe outdoor places to play at near their homes; on the other hand, 17% said they do not.
Health risks increase during teenage years with 25% reporting they spend four or more hours per day watching TV or playing video games, and 36% saying they do not eat vegetables.
The number of young people who drink soda every day (37%) is approximately equal to those who do not drink soda at all (35%). Because soda and other sugary beverages are the main source of excess sugar in our diets and highly correlated with obesity and diabetes, the shifting line between non-drinkers and everyday drinkers will be an important marker for the future health of our community.
With just two years of data, reliable trends have yet to be established. However, dramatically displayed geographical differences in health determinants provide much food for thought and, hopefully, action. The H-E-B Body Adventure zip codes maps prepared by John Berlanga of San Antonio Metro Health District show that adequate physical activity and good nutrition are unevenly distributed in Bexar County.
This reinforces and enriches national data that ranks San Antonio as the most unequal city in the United States, with life expectancy for lower-income people in San Antonio markedly worse than it is in other big cities. Excessive rates of diabetes and obesity among working people as well as life threatening diabetic complications play a big role.
Rapid growth and demographic changes, and environmental transformation, recently highlighted by the Bexar County Health Collaborative, will increase the challenges in the future.
The Witte Body Adventure provides a valuable and unique resource that can be used to improve the health of both children and adults. The information it produces suggests many strategies that could, over time, make San Antonio and Bexar County a much healthier place.
The question remains: Will we act?
Editor’s note: This report was prepared by Thomas Schlenker, M.D., MPH in his personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect the view of either the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District or the Witte Museum.