Health care providers, businesses, and public health organizations are working together to build a more health-conscious Texas, Texas Comptroller Susan Combs said Monday morning as she kicked off the sixth annual It’s Time Texas health and fitness summit. But there’s plenty more work to do.

“We are a big state and we have a big obesity problem,” Combs said.

The San Antonio Mayor’s Fitness Council is co-presenting the Austin-based nonprofit’s event through Tuesday at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.

Combs provided several sobering figures concerning the state of Texans’ physical health, including:

  • Texas has the 11th highest adult obesity rate in the nation and 17th highest adult diabetic rate.
  • Nearly 32% of Texas adults, and 19% of Texans ages 10-19 are obese.
  • More than 40% of Texans live at or below the federal poverty level, and about 20% of the state’s population has no health insurance.
  • Problems caused by obesity and generally unhealthy habits result in various healthcare expenses, costing Texas employers more than $9 billion in 2009.
Texas Comptroller Susan Combs kicks off the It's Time Texas community health summit at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center on Monday, Aug. 1, 2016. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.
Texas Comptroller Susan Combs kicks off the It’s Time Texas community health summit at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center on Monday, Aug. 1, 2016. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

The last figure is rising, she added. Combs said she is shocked by the “failure to thrive,” referring to the abundance of young children in Texas that are not getting enough nutrition, or are eating too much food. She also recalled her battle to reduce or eliminate soda vending machines in public schools.

“The cost to the next generation is going to be staggering unless we change things and change them soon,” Combs said. “If these trends continue, we will see children born in 2020 or thereafter have shorter life spans than their parents.”

Combs and It’s Time Texas officials said it’s not only about equipping schools, individuals, communities, and organizations to help Texans improve their health, but it’s about changing mindsets long-term. She further encouraged Texans to prioritize incorporating healthy eating habits and physical activity into their daily lives.

“Every single one of us has to care,” Combs added.

The University of Texas System is making a major commitment to this cause. The system is going to work with It’s Time Texas to create Healthier Texas, a public/private collaboration designed to pair research with innovative technologies to reduce the risks and results associated with preventable chronic disease.

The next It’s Time Texas summit will be renamed Healthier Texas and is set for fall 2017 in Austin. Mayor’s Fitness Council Chairman Jeff Skelton said one overriding aim should be to create opportunities and remove barriers toward healthy living. Partnerships play a big part in this, he added.

“We see ourselves as instigators and collaborators,” Skelton said.

Mayor Ivy Taylor echoed that sentiment in a brief session Monday at the summit. She said widespread poor public health negatively impacts the community in many ways.

Mayor Ivy Taylor address a full audience and touts the health and wellness activities San Antonio offers. Photo by Scott Ball.
Mayor Ivy Taylor address a full audience as she mentions the health and wellness activities San Antonio offers. Photo by Scott Ball.

“When people are not healthy, that impacts their ability to be at work, to do a good job consistently, and the bottom line for the employer when it comes to health insurance and healthcare,” she added. “Think about a kid in school. Kids who have poor nutrition – that impacts their brain development and growth and their ability to succeed in school.”

Taylor said San Antonio has worked in different ways toward improving its population’s health and raising awareness for living a healthier lifestyle. Its efforts have not gone unnoticed by It’s Time Texas, which named the city a metro category winner in its annual community challenge for the fourth year in a row.

Taylor explained some of the more successful local community health-oriented initiatives, such as the San Antonio Business Group on Health. Member employers shared best practices for on-site health and wellness activities.

Taylor mentioned Siclovia, the twice-a-year Sunday event where a major route is closed to vehicular traffic for a few hours for pedestrians and cyclists to enjoy. She highlighted Fitness in the Park, which offers free fitness classes in city parks.

Taylor said 85 local students at 23 campuses will take part in the City’s student ambassador program. The program, starting its fifth academic year this fall, has fifth- through 12th-graders exchange ideas on how they and their classmates can incorporate their school environment into plans for physical activity.

“Those of us over 40 know how difficult it is to break bad habits as an adult, but if you learn about those (healthy) things early on, you have the opportunity to establish a lifetime of healthy living,” the mayor said. “Then they can pass it onto their children.”

Taylor said she and her family take walks around their neighborhood frequently. Her office has implemented a “Walk with the Mayor” program, inviting participation from residents in each council district.

“(Walking) is something that’s easy and cheap,” she added. To help increase access to healthy food, the city is working on the mobile farmers market with the San Antonio Food Bank.

Taylor also mentioned the City’s Metropolitan Health District’s ¡Por Vida! program, which recognizes local restaurants whose menu items meet general standards for good nutrition.

Additionally, the City’s Veg Out campaign encouraged residents to eat more fruits and vegetables.

Taylor said the City is working on ways to bring a diverse offering of healthy food into area food deserts. She also urged the local faith-based community to help more in efforts to improve public health.

“I think no matter what your faith is, I believe your body is God’s temple,” the mayor added.

The It’s Time Texas summit includes exhibits from dozens of private and public organizations, including The Witte Museum.

Bryan Bayles, The Witte’s curator of anthropology and health, led one breakout session about how the museum got involved in public health education. The Witte opened its H-E-B Body Adventure in May 2014. It acts as a family-friendly, interactive exhibit exploring the human body and what it takes to keep it fit.

The exhibit records a visitor’s height and weight. The “All About You” station then asks about one’s eating and exercise habits, all of which is kept confidential. That data also provides a snapshot of community health indicators for public health officials.

“The whole point of this is to de-mystify the body and public health,” Bayles said. “Empowering people and making it fun is at the heart of this (exhibit).”

Sharing information and resources is also important to organizations such as the Bexar County Health Collaborative, another summit exhibitor. Brittany Langevin, the Collaborative’s program supervisor, said her organization’s table was visited by more than 100 people within the summit’s first two hours.

“We do see a broad spectrum of people here, such as school staff and community health workers,” Langevin said. “We really do get seen, which is awesome. It’s really great being able to give information out to the community.”

Top image: It’s Time Texas attendees walk by a large chalkboard inviting guests to write what a healthy Texas looks like.  Photo by Scott Ball.

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Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.