Other Voices

Fort Worth setting the bar on wellness

Mayor Betsy Price, center, led a costumed bike ride Oct. 28 from the Water Gardens to Pioneers Rest cemetery.
Mayor Betsy Price, center, led a costumed bike ride Oct. 28 from the Water Gardens to Pioneers Rest cemetery. Star-Telegram

We love it when Fort Worth is in the Top 10.

So, we are honored but frankly none too surprised to be one of 10 cities nationwide — and the only Texas city — chosen by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to host a health and wellness forum as part of their national Better Health through Economic Opportunity campaign.

The two-year initiative seeks to spur conversations among business and community leaders across the country and share public-private solutions to healthcare issues that affect our quality of life and our local economies.

Any business owner knows, and chamber member surveys show, the cost of healthcare has a major impact on our bottom lines, not just in benefit costs, but in absenteeism, low morale and lost productivity.

As in many other regions of our nation, one of our primary lifestyle-related chronic issues is weight.

According to FitWorth, 30 percent of the Fort Worth population — and 50 percent of Fort Worth ISD students — are considered overweight, with estimated annual cost of obesity-related illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease at $190.2 billion.

So why Fort Worth to talk about health and economic interdependency? Several key forces provide momentum.

First, the city of Fort Worth’s Urban Villages plan begun in 2002 is going gangbusters in several of the 16 designated areas, especially the Near Southside and the West Seventh Street corridor. The mixed-use zoning, bike lanes, sidewalks and redevelopment incentives encourage walking and socializing between home, work and play.

Second, in the past few years, two initiatives have been funded privately to bring about stronger systemic outreach to our residents: FitWorth, an ongoing healthy-city initiative to promote physical fitness and wellness; and the Blue Zones Project, a five-year strategic endeavor to move the needle on wellness by encouraging personal, work site and policy changes that encourage healthier options so people live longer, better lives.

Third, we have an inspiring public figure who champions this issue and walks the talk — or should I say “pedals the point” — on a daily basis. Mayor Betsy Price’s passionate enthusiasm for the well-being of all our residents is contagious here and has not gone unnoticed in Washington, D.C.

Hosted by the University of North Texas Health Science Center, the forum registration filled up within a week after we invited chamber membership with 130 executives, small business owners, educators and human resources directors. Their willingness to spend a half-day in conversation around the economics of wellness speaks volumes about the urgency of this issue and the level of community commitment.

Keynote speaker Elizabeth Sobel Blum, senior adviser of community development for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, will highlight creating a culture of health. City and Fort Worth South planners will give updates on improving the built environment, in and outside of the urban villages.

We will learn about replicating best practices in employee wellness programs from businesses large and small, for-profit and nonprofit, which have been approved or are working toward approval as Blue Zones Worksites: Lockheed Martin, Ben E. Keith, Tarrant Area Food Bank and Higginbotham.

But we’re not just talking and walking away. One key deliverable will be tool kits to engage businesses to work with their local chambers of commerce around health and economic issues.

The tool kits, available next spring, will contain specific tactics for taking action to address a community’s health and economic challenges.

The private and public sector working together on wellness is the only way we can make a collective impact in our communities.

Bill Thornton is president & CEO of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce.