The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health (HHS-OMH) chooses a theme each year, and partners around the United States join to raise awareness about the health disparities that minorities face while at the same time addressing the need for accelerating health equity and eliminating these disparities. ICHS joins HHS in recognizing the disparities that exist within the communities we serve.
True or false: Identical twins, separated at birth to grow up in two different neighborhoods, will still have about the same chance of suffering a heart attack, or developing diabetes or certain kinds of cancer?
The answer is: Not necessarily—because health is not completely up to the individual. Research clearly shows what marginalized communities have long known to be true. There are many barriers to achieving full wellbeing that are beyond one single person’s power, and social and environmental factors have a large influence on health and health behaviors.
This is especially true for minority communities. In public health we use the term social determinants of health to encompass a wide range of systems and environmental influences that impact health. These social determinants include where and how we work, play, and live. They include sectors as wide-ranging as employment, transportation, education, housing, and justice sectors.
Often it seems that large governmental agencies have even larger goals that may not translate well into action on a personal level. “What can I do about the social determinants of health,” we may ask. “How can I help bridge these gaps across sectors?” It is possible to break down large issues of health equity into more concrete goals that all of us can work towards.
Why not start with a walk around your neighborhood?
April also brings National Walking Day, a recognized health day that hopefully evokes more action-oriented thoughts than National Minority Health Month. When we walk we make a deeper connection to our community. We walk by individuals doing errands, elders shopping for groceries, children going to school, and employees taking a smoke break. We may find there are a few broken bottles on the ground next to where the children are playing, shuttered storefronts covered with graffiti, or people throwing their takeout lunch into an over owed garbage bin. We will ask, why is this that way, and what can I do about it?
We will start to link how our health and the health of others is influenced by all parts of our community, how our churches, schools, health centers, parks, and transportation systems all contribute, negatively or positively, to our communities health. Our walks may spark conversations and ideas about how we could make walking more accessible and safe, or how our communities could be better designed to encourage movement and active living.
Walking is a low-cost and easily accessible exercise. In the rainy weather or when the streets are dark, it may be more difficult to head outside for a walk, but even getting up and walking around your workplace or house, or taking the bus to the nearest mall are low-cost options.
Regular walking lowers cholesterol levels and blood pressure, increases energy and stamina, boosts bone strength, and prevents weight gain. Walking reduces risk of developing heart disease and diabetes, both of which disproportionately affect minority communities.
Start with a ten-minute walk during your lunch break, and build up to longer sessions throughout the week. Anything is good, but more is better. See if you can motivate any nearby colleagues into walking with you. Set up a steps challenge between departments at work and provide pedometers for all staff, because walking is a good HR strategy as well. It is proven to give employees an energy level boost, enhance their problem solving skills, and reduce the negative effects of excessive sitting. Instead of reaching for caffeine or sugar, get up and walk for ten minutes.
Rarely do we have access to the ideal walking route, but some practical tips can make your walk safer. In all situations it is best to wear comfortable, supportive footwear. If you are walking at night, wear reflective or light-colored clothing. When taking the sidewalk or road, walk against the direction of traffic so that you can see cars coming towards you. If you’re going on a longer walk, or want to pick up the pace, do a bit of stretching beforehand to warm-up your muscles, and a cool-down at the end.
Though it may not seem like you are working to advance health equity by simply putting on comfortable shoes and heading outside, you are taking a concrete step to understand the complex systems that shape our lives, and if you walk weekly, you will see how these systems change over time. When we walk for health equity we are contributing to better health for ourselves and all by being active citizens and active bodies.
Want to take your walk up an analytical level? Assess your community’s walkability by filling out this online checklist and learn more about what you can do right now to address issues around walkability and safety, and what you and your community can advocate for in the future: www.pedbikeinfo.org/cms/downloads/walkability_checklist.pdf
Please tune back in for our next Pathways to Health column. Here we will explore health issues in our community in the context of greater nationally recognized months or days, highlighting ways our community members can take action in their lives today.
Founded in 1973, ICHS is a non-profit community health center offering affordable primary medical and dental care, acupuncture, laboratory, pharmacy, behavioral health WIC, and health education services. ICHS’ four full-service medical and dental clinics—located in Seattle’s International District and Holly Park neighborhoods; and in the cities of Bellevue and Shoreline—serve nearly 29,000 patients each year. As the only community health center in Washington primarily serving Asians and Pacific Islanders, ICHS provides care in over 50 languages and dialects annually. ICHS is committed to improving the health of medically-underserved communities by providing affordable and in-language health care. For more information, please visit: www.ichs.com.