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PENNING: Living in a healthy county is satisfying

• May 10, 2018 at 3:00 PM

A couple of months ago, I read a news release from Ottawa County that this is the healthiest county in Michigan and has been since 2014.

My first reaction was immediate: You are welcome.

I mean, I must have been a contributing factor to this stellar result. I run almost every day, and in many parts of the county, I’ll have you know. I have also, due to my wife’s urging, given up a lot of unhealthy foods.

My second reaction was: What took so long?

If Ottawa County has only been No. 1 since 2014, the people at the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, who compile the data and the county health report, have not been paying attention. I’ve been running and eating healthy since the last millennium. It’s a shame it took so long to be recognized.

But at least I’ve finally had an impact. My sacrifice and hard work has thrust our whole county into a positive spotlight. I am your taxpayer at work.

But I can’t keep this up by myself. I get some assistance already. My wife runs with me and I’ve already mentioned the dietary sacrifices. I also appreciate the group effort of the Grand Haven Running Club. The individual efforts of all the gym rats, pickleball players and random strangers pulling their own weight along one of the county’s bike paths are also appreciated.

But I’ll be calling out others of you from now on. You’ll know me. I’ll be that guy saying, “How many Pronto Pups? Seriously?” Or “maybe walk the pier instead of just sitting on it.” Or “put down the ice cream cone and/or cigarette and help us maintain our ranking!”

OK, at this point I would hope readers would have a healthy sense of humor. Obviously I’m being facetious. But I am doing so with a purpose. Basically, I think it’s important that we all think of our own health, but also how each of us should care about the overall health of the place where we live, as an act of compassion and just good civic mindedness.

Ottawa County reported that we have several areas of particular strength:

• Longer life span

• Lower teen birth rate

• Fewer babies born at a low birthweight

• Fewer children in poverty

• Very low unemployment

• Less inequality among the highest and lowest incomes

But we also have areas to consider for improvement:

• Number of mental health providers

• Adult obesity is higher than it has ever been (29 percent)

• The rate of sexually transmitted infections continues to increase

• Children living in single-parent households: 23 percent now compared to 17 percent in 2010

• Increase in violent crime rate (203 cases of forcible rape, robbery, homicide and aggravated assault per 100,000 population compared to just 62 in top counties)

The Ottawa County Department of Public Health has used this information to create a community health needs assessment and also to hold a series of planning meetings to get input on how to improve our county’s overall health, even though we rank high compared to other counties in Michigan. The next planning meeting is May 31, and people can register on the county website or by contacting the health department.

We talk about personal health, and that is important. But health often goes beyond just individual well-being. If our community has aggregate health problems, that affects the economy, the labor market, resource availability, safety, criminal justice and many other things that contribute to overall quality of life.

We should also be concerned for our neighbors who struggle with any of the items on the list above. If their struggles are the result of their own decisions or actions, it is in our interest to offer education and encouragement. If our neighbors have a form of poor health because of some circumstance of our county and community, we should want to address that as much as we want the county to clear the snow off the roads in winter.

I feel satisfied when I run and watch what I eat and get a good report from my doctor, but I also know I could still improve my personal health. It is also satisfying to live in a county ranked the healthiest in the state, but we can make some changes to do even better on this annual county health check-up. Whether there is something you can do by yourself or as a business, nonprofit or local government, see it as a priority.

Meanwhile, maybe I’ll see you running some day. At least wave at me if you’re driving by. You’ll burn a few calories and it will be good for your mental health. It all adds up.

A collection of columns by Tim Penning, Ph.D., is in the book “Thoughts on Thursdays,” available at The Bookman.

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