Mental health, access to health services, nutrition and exercise, and deaths of people walking and riding their bicycles continue as some of the top concerns for residents in Polk County, according to the 2020 Community Health Assessment (CHA) completed in May.

The county Health Department and its partners gathered and analyzed data to determine which health topics are most critical here. The assessment is done every three to five years.

In an upcoming series we will examine more closely the results of the CHA and the work being done by a variety of partners, this piece highlights the work around addressing pedestrian safety and healthy weight.

Following the 2015 CHA, key leaders and organizations in the community strategized on ways to improve. A few results from that effort show:

  • Adults with healthy weight showed a slight improvement, but the percentage of obese adults also increased.
  • Fewer middle school students are obese but more high school students are.
  • Fewer babies died, improving the mortality rate.
  • Fewer children drowned, but more people ages 65 and older fell.
  • The number of people who died in pedestrian and bicycle accidents increased.

Deaths on the Road

One thing showing up as a major concern in 2020 is distracted driving, the main reason for an increase in pedestrians and bicyclist fatalities, Freeman said.

“Some of the most dangerous issues faced by Polk’s pedestrians and cyclists are the lack of sidewalk access in certain communities and the increase in drivers who are distracted,” Freeman said. “Many people participate in activities other than driving while behind the wheel, such as using a cell phone, eating, changing a radio station and putting on makeup. All of these activities are considered distractions as the drivers do not have all of their attention on the road and their vehicle.”

During the 2020 Community Health Survey, distracted driving was ranked as the third most harmful behavior of residents. Community leaders are working on the problem, Freeman said, and in 2018 held a series of forums to educate the community about the risks and dangers of driving distractedly.

“Polk’s Board of County Commissioners and several city commissions adopted the Pledge to Slow Down, encouraging drivers to slow their speed while driving, especially in residential areas. Lakeland also changed its crosswalk signage” and the timing of its traffic lights to give people more time to cross intersections, said Jenna Levine of the Polk Health Department.

In addition, she said, the Polk County School District is:

  • Including safety lessons in their physical education classes.
  • Hosting bike rodeos, where safe cycling practices are demonstrated.
  • Providing helmet fitter trainings to ensure every child riding their bike to school has a helmet available.
  • Taking part in Bike to School Day in May and Walk To School Day in October, celebrating families who choose to walk/bike to school and raising awareness of drivers and provide safety information.

Lack of sidewalks are also part of the problem, Freeman said. A recent study found that 28 percent of roads within a mile of schools do not have sidewalks, posing a hazard for children. Polk County and the Florida Department of Transportation are funding construction of sidewalks, starting in the areas prioritized as having the highest need.

Weight Gains and Losses

Maintaining a healthy weight is another key initiative the county has focused on and will continue. Information is based on body mass index, which is calculated using height and weight. Generally, a BMI less than 25 is considered healthy, 25 to 30 is considered being overweight, and over 30 is considered being obese.

In Polk County, between 2013 and 2016, the percentages of adults who are obese and at a healthy weight have both increased. What this means is:

  • More Polk County adults were at a healthy weight in 2016 than in 2013.
  • More Polk County adults were obese in 2016 than in 2013.
  • Fewer Polk County adults were overweight in 2016 than in 2013.

“The good news is that our adult healthy weight rate increased between 2013 and 2016,” Levine said. Data from 2013 was used in the 2015 CHA, and data from 2016 was used for the current CHA.

Many factors contribute to obesity, including diet, exercise, access to healthy foods and making healthy choices, Levine said.  Polk Public Schools has been instrumental in efforts to help increase the number of students at a healthy weight and decrease the number who are overweight or obese.

“Strategies have focused on including nutrition education in schools, providing healthy breakfasts and lunches to students, and providing exercise opportunities through recess and physical education classes,” Levine said. “Through school-wide efforts to promote healthy choices, Polk County children have been receiving messaging and education on healthy weight for several years, and we hope this has had an impact on the overall weight status of our students.”

Other Factors

Many factors are involved in shaping the health of Polk County residents, everything from education, employment status, income, financial stability, race and ethnicity to neighborhoods and ZIP codes. All are environmental factors that impact a person’s ability to make healthy choices and live healthy lives, Freeman said.

According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s County Health Rankings Model, Freeman said, “Social and economic factors make up 40 percent of an individual’s modifiable health factors. Therefore, social and economic factors, including education, employment, income, family and social support, and community safety, have a larger impact on an individual’s overall health than the quality of the air they breathe or the water they drink.”

People with lower levels of education and income “generally have worse health outcomes than those who attain higher levels of education,” she said, something widely reported as part of the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is related to a lot of factors, including the ability to find a secure, well-paying job that offers health insurance benefits, and the ability to understand health-related messaging and make healthy choices in daily life, including eating healthy foods and refraining from tobacco and alcohol use.”