CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In Parkersburg, nurse practitioner Amy Edy volunteers countless hours to set up children's runs for the River City Runners and Walkers. "I'm so conscious, in my nursing job, of the obesity epidemic," she said. "This is one way I can help kids get hooked on health."
In Elkins, Forest Service employee Teri Evans does the same for Girls on the Run. Because of her, 200 grade-school girls in four counties run for fun after school. "If they learn to love running, it'll protect their health for the rest of their lives," she said.
In central West Virginia, West Virginia Mountain Bike Association volunteers helped cut trails through thick brush to connect hiking and biking trails in six counties.
In the Eastern Panhandle, Dr. Mark Cucuzzella spearheads a huge running race each year to pay for children's running clubs, walking trails and playgrounds.
They -- and people like them -- are reasons to hope that someday West Virginia will be off the top of every list of awful chronic diseases: diabetes, heart disease, obesity, etc.
All over the state, people are taking the lead. They're doing it, with or without state support, with or without pay, trying to make it easier to follow doctors' advice: Move more. Eat more fresh food, less fast food. Quit drinking soda pop.
Farmers markets have doubled in number since 2008, bringing fresh food to areas that had little or none. Rural parents are forming sport leagues to keep kids active. Churches sponsor exercise groups that bring lonely seniors together.
Maybe it's starting to work. Last year, the fifth-graders' blood pressure, cholesterol and obesity level all dropped, according to West Virginia University measurements.
The Children's Medicine Center at CAMC Women and Children's Hospital has had even better news. Five years ago, 44 percent of its patients ages 2 to 14 were obese or overweight. Today, that number has dropped to 36 percent.
"We've got a way to go, but we're headed in the right direction," said director Dr. Jamie Jeffrey. "We've got the attention of a lot of parents now. If we keep at it, we can turn this thing around."
Twenty years ago, obesity wasn't even on Kanawha County's list of biggest health problems. Now it tops the list. In 2012, 86 percent of local officials identified obesity as one of the top three problems in their counties, after lack of jobs and drugs, in a WVU study.
"Local officials are starting to realize community health is very much part of their job," said Patti Hamilton, director of the West Virginia Association of Counties. "Sidewalks, bike paths, farmers markets and hiking trails are part of economic development too."
Help from state government has been spotty. A new audit of the Department of Health and Human Services says state health programs are weak, fragmented and uncoordinated. Yet, at the same time, individual programs are rock stars:
- The Office of Child Nutrition got junk food and sodas out of the schools, improved the nutrition of school meals and increased the number of children eating, among other things.
- The Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department created an array of healthy projects for other communities to copy. The state's underfunded Community Transformation program is trying to spread them statewide.
- One in five West Virginians gets care through the state's community health centers, considered one of the strongest networks in the nation. The centers offer anti-diabetes programs and emphasize prevention.
- Public employees and their families have lost more than 16 tons of weight since 2004, through weight-loss programs of the Public Employees Insurance Agency, a prevention pioneer.
But nobody tracks local healthy lifestyle efforts statewide, so nobody really knows who is doing what. "People in one place don't always know what other communities are doing or what help is available from the state. So they can't inspire and help each other as much as they otherwise might," observed Kim Tieman, who represents the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation in West Virginia.