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Scott G. Winterton, Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Olympic champion Derek Parra tells former Cabinet officials Mike Leavitt, left, Donna E. Shalala, Ann M. Veneman and Dan Glickman, right, about programs at the Utah Olympic Oval.

KEARNS — Nearly everyone has heard of the national dietary guidelines implying what and how much Americans are advised to eat, but when it comes to physical activity, those recommendations are a little more obscure.

Former Utah Gov. and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt helped to implement those guidelines in 2008, but with obesity rates climbing at unprecedented rates throughout the country, officials are thinking many people just aren't aware of the importance of getting that heart rate up.

"There are a lot of barriers for Americans," Leavitt said Monday during a local discussion of the Bipartisan Policy Center, which is working to find ways to enhance exercise and nutrition opportunities nationwide. With his hectic travel schedule, Leavitt said he burns the typically boring airport down times by briskly walking up and down the terminals.

"It's about identifying the barriers and learning to overcome them," he said. "We need to find ways to begin to live healthier as Americans."

Leavitt was joined by other former secretaries Dan Glickman, Donna Shalala and Ann Veneman on a tour of the Utah Olympic Oval and the neighboring Kearns Oquirrh Park Fitness Center, to showcase opportunities already available to participating communities.

"What I do beats the heck out of work," said Brent Sheets, executive director of the Oquirrh Recreation and Parks District. He takes his job seriously — making sure that each person who takes part in any one of dozens of programs available leaves in better condition than they arrived.

The center, which serves more than 800,000 participants every year, recently joined up with Jordan School District to build a $2.5-million Kevlar canopy for the lap pool. The pool's new-found, year-round use also facilitates swim teams from at least three different regional high schools.

"We needed a cover and they needed a pool," Sheets said, praising the partnership. "It also negates them from having to build pools that cost $4-6 million a piece. And pools lose money, people."

In addition to the center's promising prospects, local officials teamed up to tie a pretty bow on a bundle of Utah's successful fitness enterprises, including Salt Lake County's recent announcement of its "Commit to be Fit" campaign, that hopes to encourage 500,000 residents to take the first step by committing to do something active.

With more than 23 recreation facilities, 18 pools, six golf courses and four ice rinks, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon said there's no excuse for residents not to do more to help themselves. And in the long run, help their budgets as health care costs are projected to drop with decreasing waistlines.

"There's no reason Utah should not be the healthiest state in the nation," Corroon said.

The Bipartisan Policy Center has visited Miami and plans to tour areas of California as well, looking specifically for programs that can be replicated to "make a difference in national and in state health," Glickman said.

The priority areas of the Nutrition and Physical Activity Initiative, led by the former secretaries, include investing in children's health, creating healthy schools, improving the health of communities and developing healthy institutions. Officials plan to work to promote federal, state and local policies, programs and best practices that can attract bipartisan support for legislative, administrative and private sector action. They plan to release a final policy report in the spring of 2012.

"Not all cities can be Olympic cities," Veneman said, adding that Salt Lake City is definitely a "unique place." The bipartisan group, she said, is interested in finding alternatives for federal funding, to keep recreation opportunities functional for many years as budgets continue to dwindle.

"We had a vision," said Natalie Gochnour, a Utah Athletic Foundation board member. "It was never about those 18 days. It was about having a winter sports capital." She said the Oval, which is managed by the foundation, didn't peak immediately following the 2002 Olympics, but hit an all-time high attendance record just last year.

"Beyond the Olympics, we saw into the future to see what sports could do to change lives," Gochnour said. The Oval partners with neighboring Beehive Elementary School to facilitate physical education for the schoolchildren, providing a different environment than the typical classroom.

Grade schoolers are no longer required to get physical education credits during school hours, but do participate in recess and, at various Gold Medal schools throughout the state, spend time walking around specified "Gold Medal Mile" routes.

"There are some basic skills every child should know," said Marc Norman, vice president of sport and venues for the Utah Athletic Foundation.

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The Oval course helps kids learn movements that make them feel comfortable on the ground, in the air, in water, on ice and on snow. Norman said that when kids know how to properly jump, run, throw and slide, they're more apt to enjoy it down the road in their lives.

Without a strong constituent or advocacy group for prevention or health promotion, Salt Lake Valley Health Department Director Gary Edwards said action has to be taken without waiting for funding.

"It doesn't take a ton of money," he said. "It takes one person being creative."

Edwards said various programs throughout the state are "starting to make a difference" in people's lives and in the overall condition of the state, and "we've got to keep going."

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com

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