08/31/09

Interview with the Minnesota Department of Health's Chris KimberInterview with the Minnesota Department of Health's Chris Kimber

How do you bike and walk?

Walking is something I do every day. I do it because I can. It's there; it's great. I like to live in places that are walkable, work in places that are walkable, and travel to places that are walkable. It's central to the way I like to live.

I call a walkable community a proxy for a healthy community, because if a community is walkable a lot of other good things are happening in that community: it's safe to be outside, you're connecting with neighbors, you are out experiencing your own environment. Also, if people can walk in a community, it's closer to being accessible for everybody from baby strollers to wheelchair users. So I think it's a really nice proxy for good things  happening in the community.

My parents gave me a bike when I was a little girl and I've been biking ever since. It's one of the greatest inventions of humankind. It gives you so much: it's transportation, it's exploration, it's independence, it's recreation and probably the part I love the most is it's a means of feeling forever young. When I get on my bike it's like I'm a kid again.

Tell us a little about your role as Physical Activity Coordinator.

At the Minnesota State Department of Health, I summarize my work into three major responsibilities. Number one is translating science into practice. And what that means is basically what the research tells us, what the studies tell us, how does that translate and get implemented into the real world. We take a lot of information from places like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, scientific journals, and academic reports that we translate into what can work in Minnesota.

I'd say the field of physical activity became a public health priority about 15 years ago. I've been fortunate to be involved in it from the beginning. What's been really great is that in the past two years, things have really crystallized as to what can be implemented to really make a difference in helping people be more active.  It's an exciting time to be in the field.

Another responsibility is to serve as an information resource. At the Department of Health we're in the information business, so we do a lot of work in providing credible information to people on all kinds of topics for health. My area of expertise is physical activity. That's the information I provide.

And then, thirdly, public health is so much about partnerships and connecting with people. We have such a great public health system in Minnesota with a strong working relationship between the state and our local public health agencies. And all of us in this state and local public health system have connections with many partners. Protecting and improving the public's health takes more than just the public health system to make it happen, so partnerships are critical to our work.

How do you see things changing? 

What's really changing is people are starting to recognize the importance of a supportive environment that provides opportunities to be active. Everybody's known forever that physical activity is good for health but it's the ability to put that into action that's always been the issue.  It's about making the active choice be the easy choice. And more and more people are choosing places to live that have close proximity to walking paths or bike trails or showing up at public meetings in support of new developments or neighborhood renovations that include pedestrian, bike and transit improvements . A recent Minnesota poll identified that people in Minnesota have a high value for open space and green space. Those are the points that are starting to be articulated more and more, people really wanting built-in opportunities to be active, to walk and bike, and enjoy the outdoors.

Ten years from now, what would you imagine would be different?

I think we will have a much more multi-modal transportation system in the state. Just as they are many opportunities to get around by car, hopefully there will be many opportunities to walk and bike. I'd love to see increased opportunities for biking, not just in select places, or community or state trails that don't connect up to each other very well, but a really nice connected system across the entire state. Ten years from now I imagine that we would see a lot better walking infrastructure in the cities across the state. It's the constant issue of resources for transportation, but it just makes so much sense to invest in improving the walkability infrastructure for all kinds of reasons, health being one of the biggest ones.

This week the Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP) will channel $47 million in grants to 40 communities to fight smoking and obesity. Can you talk a little about that?

Yes, this is very exciting! SHIP is part of an overall health reform initiative in Minnesota. SHIP is the part of the health reform initiative that is focused on disease prevention and health improvement. The three leading causes of preventable illness and premature death are physical inactivity, poor nutrition, and tobacco use.

What is really exciting about SHIP is that so many key factors have lined up to position it for success. And success for SHIP will mean improved health for people in Minnesota.

The key factors include that we now have the evidence of what will make a difference, we have had innovative projects in Minnesota that have already had success, and now we have SHIP grantees working across nearly all of the state to make this happen.

We are very fortunate in Minnesota to have some fantastic active living projects that have been happening over the last 5 years or so. One of these is the Bike Walk Twin Cities project. Another is the Isanti County Active Living project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Others include the Active Living Minnesota projects funded by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. These projects have been innovative in applying what is known to make improvements supportive of active living. 

The main emphasis for physical activity in SHIP is to create opportunities for active living - this could be active communities, active schools, active worksites and active child care settings. Active living integrates physical activity into daily routines such as walking or biking for transportation or recreation, playing in the park, working in the yard, or using recreation facilities. This is based on the evidence that if the built environment supports physical activity, people will be more active. One example I like to use is that if a person wants to swim and there is no water around, they won't be swimming. Likewise, if people want to walk and bike for transportation and recreation and/or they want to be active in parks and other open, green space; then those types of facilities and supportive policies need to be in place or it won't happen.