Utah's public health system is getting more than $2 million over five years to help tip the scales toward better health. The Utah Department of Health will receive $455,000 annually to develop a Physical Activity, Nutrition and Obesity Program that specifically targets weight.

Although Utah ranks relatively well compared to other states, 47th lowest in terms of obesity for 2007, weight is a "growing problem" here, as well, said Dr. David Sundwall, the health department's executive director. "The population here is getting fatter faster than the rest of the country and our rate of increase is significant."

More than a million Utahns are overweight or obese, with more than 57 percent of adult Utahns — 64.1 percent of men and 48.2 percent of women — falling into those categories. Sundwall said a good portion of the state's health-care dollars spent through Medicaid, for example, deal with preventable problems directly related to unhealthy weight. "We really have a challenge."

The Beehive State is one of eight to receive the competitive Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grants this round.

The first year will be a planning period, building in large part on work that has already been done, according to Lynda Blades, physical activity coordinator for UDOH. The state has developed a "blueprint" that has specific goals already set. The CDC grant to create environments and policies that lead to healthy behaviors will allow it to put some of those goals into action.

Blades said part of the effort the first year will be "more in-depth analysis of barriers" to healthier choices, with an effort to identify ways to tackle those barriers. They plan to look closer at areas of the state that have higher levels of obesity, for instance, or specific population segments with weight problems.

Utah already has some programs in place, such as the Gold Medal Schools program. The new grant money won't be used to fund existing efforts, which will continue, but rather to identify and implement new ones.

They also hope to find better ways to measure programs' effectiveness, monitor trends in obesity and more. Working with public and private partners, UDOH plans to promote policies and environments that support healthy behaviors at work, home, schools and out and about. Examples might be removing junk food from school vending machines, for instance, or making neighborhoods more walk-friendly.

It will also cover the cost of hiring more staff, "in particular someone who will be able to do more data analysis and help us to continue to monitor trends in obesity, physical activity and nutritional behaviors."

The state knows that more than half of adults weigh too much; they're now analyzing data collected on youngsters, she said.


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