Human beings are built to be active. But a mix of factors, including culture, geography and technology, mean not enough Tennesseans are moving as much as they should.
A national study shows that Tennessee ranks next to last in the nation, just above Mississippi, when it comes to being physically active.
• Four out of 10 adults report that they lead completely sedentary lives.
• Only 13% meet recommended weekly physical activity levels
That has a negative effect on overall health—where Tennessee also ranks among the bottom 10 states.
“There are some pretty understandable reasons for the lack of activity,” says Rick Johnson, director of the Governor’s Foundation for Health and Wellness. “When we see what makes up modern life, being active is not always the easy choice or the common choice. Where and how we work, and how we spend our time when not at work, all contribute to people being less active now than they were 20 or 25 years ago.”
Even everyday tasks that once required some physical exertion have been automated out of existence—we take elevators, use power lawn mowers, and shop online. And while that makes life easier in many ways, it has profound health consequences.
Activity is for More Than Athletes
Activity lowers blood pressure, improves sleep, reduces blood sugar, strengthens bones and muscle, reduces the risk of heart disease and some cancers, and reduces senior citizens’ risk of falling.
“Human beings are built to be active in order to burn calories, build muscle strength, and improve metabolism. Increasing physical activity, even incrementally, by getting up during the workday and walking the perimeter of the of office, stretching and moving a bit every hour—that alone makes a difference to overall health,” says Johnson.
But these days the idea of regular exercise has become synonymous with body consciousness and athleticism. People who carve out time to exercise are categorized as gym rats who want six-pack abs, or marathon runners determined to set a personal record. Helping non-exercisers embrace the idea of adding movement to their day means changing that perception and making activity easy, accessible and enjoyable.
“There’s nothing negative about an exercise regimen, but many people are not going to begin getting active that way. It’s important that people don’t go on a guilt trip or feel that they are seen as lazy or unconcerned about their health if they aren’t active,” says Johnson. “We need to recognize our state’s poor ranking, but we then need to focus on finding ways to get people more physically active.”
That’s why the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health Foundation is supporting creative programs in Chattanooga and throughout Tennessee to meet that challenge.
For people new to hiking, biking or even paddle boarding, a few nagging questions can sometimes keep them from getting out at all—even in a city with as many options as Chattanooga. Where should I go? Is it going to be too challenging? Will I be able to find anywhere to park?
RootsRated aims to make the outdoors accessible by answering these questions and more. They’ve created something like a Wikipedia for outdoor activities, combining a simple interface with content developed by local experts, including athletes and people who work in the outdoor industry.
Someone who wants to get outside can visit RootsRated.com, pick their city and an activity, then get a list of destination guides with all the details they need to find the right place for their interests and abilities, then plan an outing.
RootsRated has around 100 destination guides, which they call “experiences,” for the Chattanooga area alone. And thanks to a sponsorship from the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health Foundation, they plan to create another 200+ across the state.
For co-founder Mark McKnight, one key to success is writing that walks the line between inspiration and aspiration. “Much of the content being produced by the outdoor industry doesn’t speak to the beginner or the average person,” Mark says. “Aspirational storytelling with images of pro skiers going off cliffs might seem cool, but for Tennesseans it can seem extreme and dangerous.”
Mark also says getting first-timers out in the woods is a little easier than getting them into a gym. “The idea makes many people associate wellness with hard work that has to be done,” he says. “By contrast, outdoor activity really is about having fun and enjoying nature. People who take the time to walk through a park during lunch or take a hike after work experience profound effects, and it never feels like a chore.”
As RootsRated expands its content across the state, Mark expects to see more Tennesseans taking advantage of the state’s natural beauty—and reaping the mental and physical benefits that go along with it.
“For too long, the outdoors has been for the few, but we believe it’s for everyone.”
It’s easy to recall childhood as a carefree time, but in reality, kids get stressed out too, with pressures of their own from school, family and friends—and lately they are losing one of their main sources of relief.
“Across society, a number of things are making play disappear from the lives of kids,” says Amy Levner, vice president of communications and marketing for KaBOOM!, a nonprofit organization that builds playgrounds in underserved communities and promotes playtime for all kids.
The BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health Foundation has provided more than $630,000 to build KaBOOM! playgrounds throughout Tennessee, including two here in Chattanooga—one at Hope for the Inner City, and one in Alton Park. And hundreds of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee employees have volunteered to help build the playgrounds.
KaBoom! gives special attention to underserved areas, partly because these neighborhoods have fewer parks and playgrounds, but also because the kids face more intense challenges to their overall well-being. Tag, hide-and-seek, jump rope, climbing a rock wall, swinging and sliding all get children moving, and that activity has a positive impact on their health. And parents who make the time to play with their children strengthen the family bond and get to know their children better.
By the end of the process, the neighborhood has a central gathering place that encourages positive interactions, the kids have a safe place to play and the parents end up having a respite from the day’s worries and may even get in a bit of activity themselves.
“The playground is such a lovely metaphor for life,” says Levner. “It involves interaction, collaboration and problem solving—all critical 21st century skills.”
Kids have playgrounds, but what about teens and grown-ups? If they’re lucky, they have a Fitness Zone. These outdoor exercise areas, with stationary bikes, pull-up bars, elliptical machines and more, give anyone free access to gym-style workout equipment.
The Trust for Public Land (TPL) installed six Fitness Zones at youth and family development centers in Chattanooga.
“We were very intentional on the sites we selected,” says Jasmin Rippon, Tennessee TPL director. “We mapped Chattanooga’s health data, looking at the areas with the highest rates of stroke, diabetes, cancer—the top indicators of early death. Those were our priority areas, and we chose sites next to recreation centers, because we knew there would be staff who would bring people to the Fitness Zones and help them learn how to use the equipment.”
The East Lake Fitness Zone, part of TPL’s Parks for People program, draws about 50 people each day. One regular is a teenager confined to a wheelchair due to spina bifida, but who always finds a way to be active and independent.“He uses the Fitness Zone to help him build his upper body strength,” says his mother. “And it gives him a place to hang out with his friends after school and just be a normal teenager.”
The Power of Blue—BlueCross Health Foundation is helping Tennesseans get active and healthy by:
• Giving $3 million to make GoNoodle, a classroom tool for active learning, free for every public elementary school in Tennessee for 3 years
• Awarding 100 middle schools grants to implement SPARK, a physical education curriculum and equipment program, at a total cost of $1 million
• Issuing a grant for equipment and installation of 3 Fitness Zones in Chattanooga
• Providing grant funding to support the Chattanooga Riverwalk, plus equipment and installation for Bike Chattanooga
• Building 11 KaBoom playgrounds in Tennessee through more than $630,000 in sponsorships
• Funding the creation of 200+ outdoor destination guides through RootsRated
Promotional content provided by BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health Foundation, Independent Licensees of the BlueCross BlueShield Association.
Story by Nancy Henderson
Photography Courtesy of BlueCross BlueShield of Tenneessee