Health summit attendees take a walk around town; how did they rate it?

News-DemocratNovember 7, 2013 

Belleville, St. Clair County and the rest of the metro-east need to work harder to create a safer, more active community.

That was part of the message by active transportation advocate Mark Fenton who spoke Thursday at the fifth annual Southwestern Illinois Health Policy Summit.

He said sidewalks in new subdivisions should be the law, similar to sewer, seat belt and recycling legislation.

"We must build communities where people are intrinsically more active," Fenton said.

More than 150 people, including metro-east leaders, students, educators and health officials, attended the summit at Lindenwood University-Belleville. The theme of this year's summit was "Building Connections: Healthy Bodies, Minds and Communities."

"We have a long way to go if we want to build healthier communities," Fenton said.

During lunch time, participants broke into three groups with different routes to walk to lunch at Fischer's Restaurant. They pointed out things that were nice about the routes, like wide sidewalks and painted crosswalks, and they pointed out negatives, such as uneven sidewalks or construction. They were asked to rate areas on the routes on a scale of zero to 10, with zero being nearly unusable and 10 being ideal for pedestrians, cyclists, transit commuters and those driving vehicles.

He also spoke about the decline in "free-range kids," or children who were allowed to play all day outside the house until the street lights came on, riding their bikes to their friends houses and playing with neighbors.

Why the decline?

"Safety," answered the auditorium.

However, there's been a zero percent increase in violent crimes committed on children by strangers in the past several decades, Fenton said.

Unfortunately, the obesity rates and diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes in children has skyrocketed during that same time span.

Fenton, the father of a 15-year-old daughter and 18-year-old son, said that he is concerned for children safety. But he described himself as a "raving lunatic for our kids who have a shorter life expectancy than we do."

The second presenter, Paul Zientarski, also spoke about the importance of children's activity levels. With 40 years experience in physical education, he talked about the role of physical activity and improved learning retention.

"Any time you sit down, the brain says I'm not looking for food, so I can shut down and rejuvenate," he said.

Zientarski said that new brain cells are built during exercise, not class time. He showed study results that showed improved reading and math scores in students who took those classes directly after a physical education class, as opposed to later in the day.

He said it's a flaw in some school districts that are cutting out recess or PE time for more class time.

"You want to improve your test scores? Make them more fit," he said.

Similarly, he pointed out that it doesn't work to discipline a misbehaving child by taking away his recess. The child needs to run around so he can behave better, Zientarski explained.

Information from the presentations will be uploaded to the getupgo.info in the next couple of days, according to Mark Peters, St. Clair County Health Department director of community health.

Contact reporter Maria Hasenstab at 618-239-2460 or mhasenstab@bnd.com.

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