Transform Rockford: Health is More Than Diet and Exercise

Rockford has a health problem, but it’s not in the way you think. Discover how a team on the nonprofit Transform Rockford is leading a turnaround in some of this region’s key metrics.

Jim Schmitt and Ian Linnabary consider themselves to be pretty healthy. They’re active runners, bikers, triathletes. They love outdoor adventures.
But as they discovered while leading Transform Rockford’s Healthy Lifestyles “spoke” team, the pair are more the exception than the rule.
“What we found is that Rockford is very unhealthy,” says Linnabary, a partner at Reno & Zahm law firm and president of Rockford Park District’s board of commissioners. “Illinois has 102 counties and we ranked very near the bottom in some key health factors.”
The Healthy Lifestyles team is one of 12 spokes, or groups, developing strategies to improve Rockford’s fortunes. In their quest to understand good health, the team members dug deep into a county health ranking supplied by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin.
The study measures average length and quality of life, but also measures health factors: behaviors like tobacco/drug use, diet and sexual activity; access to clinical care; socioeconomic factors including family dynamics and safety; and environmental quality.
On the positive side, Rockford outranks average access to medical care. However, Winnebago County has higher incidents of smoking, low birth weight and obesity than neighboring counties. Nearly half of its kids grow up in single-parent households; a quarter grow up in poverty. Rockfordians are twice as likely as other Illinois residents to die in violent crime and 30 percent more likely to have a sexually transmitted disease.
“We have a relatively low median income and a relatively low number of college-educated residents, and those factors correlate to poor health,” says Linnabary. “Nationwide, you’ll find that in poorer communities people are worried about where their next paycheck is going to come from, and how they’re going to pay rent or afford groceries.”
There’s evidence these factors heavily impact kids.
“One of the things we learned is that there’s a critical age, from pregnancy to about 10 years old, where kids who are exposed to unhealthy lifestyles and more adversity have a greater instance of chronic disease later in life,” says Schmitt, director of human resources for manufacturer Bergstrom Inc. “Adversity starts to turn on and off certain genetic markers in your system. These are precursors of such conditions as heart disease, heart attack, stroke, diabetes.”
Schmitt and Linnabary believe they’ve found a path forward: the Blue Zone project, which seeks to implement the healthy attributes of societies with high instances of 100-year-olds. This national program focuses on nine points, which the Transform Rockford team has simplified into four pillars.
“It’s pretty easy: being active, eating well, dealing with stress well, and loving and being loved,” says Linnabary. “If you can incorporate those four things into your life, you will be a healthier individual.”
Easier said than done. As the Transform Rockford team discovered, the city’s poorest areas are blasted with fast-food advertising, starved for quality groceries and fresh produce, and burdened with stress. This is where Linnabary and Schmitt see opportunity to collaborate with Transform Rockford’s other teams.
“The education spoke wants kids to be healthy, because healthy kids are more conducive to learning,” says Linnabary. “If you come to school as a child and you’re not healthy, or you’re hungry, you’re not going to be focused on the task at hand. You’re in survival mode.”
Individually, the team sees opportunities to introduce community gardens and mobile farmers markets. Longer-term solutions also focus on food supplies.
“I think there’s a concern that we have to address the food desert concern early on,” says Schmitt. “The Save-a-Lot on West State Street has been a huge help, and we need to find ways to get more of that to happen.”
But it’s useless if children and their families don’t learn the fundamentals of healthy living.
“You can put the grocery stores in a community, but if the demand isn’t there for healthy food options, then the grocers are going to meet their market,” says Linnabary. “They’re going to provide what the market wants.”
Transform Rockford and its 12 spoke teams plan to reveal their action strategies in June. Afterward, the teams will craft tactical measures to realize those strategies. The Healthy Lifestyles team ultimately hopes to create a Blue Zone right in Rockford.
“Blue Zones are about action,” says Linnabary. “It’s not about studying. We know how and why we’re unhealthy. Blue Zones teaches us how to reverse those trends and address those factors head-on.”