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DoD starts new effort to get troops, employees thinking healthy

Sep. 13, 2013 - 03:23PM   |  
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Summertime refused to cede to fall Thursday in Falls Church, Va., as temperatures soared to 90 degrees and the Pentagon’s top doctor led a shorts-clad group on a fast-paced 1-mile run at the future Defense Health Agency headquarters.

The sweaty PT session marked the kickoff of the facility’s participation in the Defense Department’s “Healthy Base Initiative,” a nutrition and wellness program being field-tested at 14 military bases and offices nationwide.

The $6 million demonstration project is designed to assess the health of each facility’s population and improve it through healthy nutrition, physical activity and tobacco reduction.

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Dr. Jonathan Woodson said the Healthy Base Initiative will determine what health and fitness programs actually work and should be implemented DoD-wide.

“Society at large is dealing with the issue of health, nutrition and weight gain, and we need to take this on full force, having a good strategy to do better,” Woodson said.

The Defense Department spends $3.2 billion on obesity-related disease treatment and tobacco-related illnesses and treatment each year, said Charles Milam, principal director for military community and family policy.

A 2011 survey of active-duty members indicated that a quarter of troops smoked, while roughly 13 percent were classified as obese and 51 percent were considered overweight.

The numbers are even worse for military retirees: More than 40 percent of the youngest retirees, ages 40 to 49, are obese, according to DoD data.

Under the Healthy Base Initiative, participating facilities were given a baseline assessment of certain health metrics, including aggregate weight, tobacco use and fitness program participation.

Individual bases are left to determine how they will improve their numbers and the facilities will be reassessed after a year, said Capt. Kim Elenberg, director for medical readiness and training for the U.S. Public Health Service.

At Defense Health Headquarters, changes have included hosting a farmer’s market on Thursdays, banning smoking from the 44-acre campus, mapping out indoor walking trails in the building and an outdoor running path.

Officials acknowledge they face an uphill battle in changing habits, even on a day set aside to gin up enthusiasm for the program.

At the kickoff, fewer than 10 percent of the 3,000 employees at the Defense Health Headquarters showed up for the festivities. The most popular kiosks at the farmer’s market include the bread tent and the home-baked goods. Some employees dropped out of the run/walk.

To be fair, it was hot.

“It’s going to to take a while, but I do think it’s going to work,” said Navy Capt. Tonya Hall, vice chief of staff for the Bureau of Medicine, who participated in the festivities despite being in full uniform.

“Initiatives like this really go a long way to bringing this to people’s minds, because that’s half the battle, making people think about healthy habits,” she said.

Personnel at participating bases could see new programs, such as weight loss groups and fitness classes, revamped chow hall menus and new vending machine choices. Additional plans include an online assessment tool for personnel, family members and retirees to measure their overall health and map out plans for improvement.

What participating bases won’t see is the removal of base fast-food restaurants or snack foods from commissary shelves, Elenberg said.

“That’s not our goal. What we want to do is increase health literacy and offer healthy choices. If we can do that, if we can have farmer’s markets, teach parents how to pack a healthy lunch, encourage people to kick their tobacco habits, we can succeed,” she said.

The participating bases and facilities are: Fort Bragg, N.C.; Fort Sill, Okla.; Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii; Submarine Base New London Conn.; Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho; Yokota Air Base, Japan; Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif.; Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.; Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod, Mass.; March Air Reserve Base, Calif.; Fort Meade, Md.; Camp Dodge, Iowa; and the Defense Logistics Agency, Fort Belvoir, Va.

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