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Fit city
What will it take for Milwaukee to reach ‘Gold Status’ when it comes to health and wellness?


March 2014

With its plentiful parks, beaches and recreational trails along the Lake Michigan shoreline, Milwaukee is not lacking in community outlets for physical activity. But, Milwaukeeans also love their beer, brats, cheese and cream puffs, as evidenced by a rise in chronic health conditions like diabetes and obesity.

In 2013, Milwaukee placed 26th on the American Fitness Index, an annual list compiled by the American College of Sports Medicine, which ranks the 50 most populous metropolitan areas in terms of health and community fitness. The report evaluates cities’ infrastructure, community assets and policies that encourage healthy, fit lifestyles.

"It’s imperative for cities to fund amenities and form policies that get residents active and encourage healthy lifestyles," says Walter Thompson, chair of the AFI Advisory Board.

Milwaukee’s 26th place ranking on the 2013 fitness index is an improvement over 2012 when the city finished 30th out of the top 50 metropolitan areas. Among Milwaukee’s strengths over other major metropolitan areas — a lower percentage of heart disease, more farmers markets per capita and a higher percentage of people biking or walking to work.

But when it comes to healthy habits, Milwaukee falls short of its peers. According to study results, Milwaukee residents have a higher rate of obesity and asthma. The city also has a higher percentage of smokers and fewer residents who eat five servings of fruits and vegetables per day.

So how can Milwaukee crack the top 10 on the American Fitness Index in 2014?

"It’s up to community health leaders and advocates to put this information to good use," says Thompson.

He advises cities that want to help their residents get healthier to focus on simple changes that could help make big health improvements. One effective strategy is to support businesses that make communities healthier like farmers markets, which offer fresh produce from local growers.

Thompson also suggests local businesses encourage their employees to adopt healthier lifestyles by partnering with health and wellness initiatives and fitness organizations.

Healthy programs in place

Despite a mediocre score on the American Fitness Index, there are signs that Milwaukee is making strides to improve the health and well-being of its residents. The city is at the forefront of urban agriculture with nationally recognized programs like the HOME GR/OWN initiative, which is turning vacant lots in Milwaukee’s low-income neighborhoods into community gardens and urban farms.

"It’s a way to stimulate the local economy and increase access to healthy food," explains Tim McCollow, project manager of the initiative.

Another citywide initiative, Well City Milwaukee, is aiming to make Milwaukee one of the country’s healthiest cities through workplace wellness. The group is currently seeking the "Well City Gold" designation, meaning that 50 percent of the city’s workforce is taking part in a wellness program. Milwaukee achieved Silver status in 2010, with 30 percent of the Milwaukee workforce participating in wellness programs.

The main supporters behind the Well City Milwaukee initiative include the MMAC, the Greater Milwaukee Committee, the City of Milwaukee, YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee and the Wellness Council of Wisconsin. Nearly 70 employers have committed to becoming accredited well workplaces as Milwaukee pursues "Well City Gold" status.

"If every company is accredited by the end of 2014, Milwaukee will be the only city in the nation to achieve Gold status," says Gail Bennett, director of Well City Milwaukee.

Bennett says the goal of Well City Milwaukee is to make workplace wellness programs the norm.

"The idea is that creating a healthy culture at work will have a ripple effect on the community," she says.

Becoming more bike-friendly

Another sign that Milwaukee is making strides toward becoming a healthier community? A report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, released in late 2013, shows that residents in Wisconsin’s urbanized areas — including Milwaukee — are driving less and using alternate modes of transportation like public transit and bicycles more.

"There’s a shift away from driving in our cities here in Wisconsin and across the country," says Bruce Speight, director of the WISPIRG Foundation. "The driving boom is over. We need to invest in improving public transit and biking, which are growing around the country."

According to Transportation in Transition — the first ever national study to compare transportation trends in large U.S. cities — Milwaukee saw the second largest drop in per-capita Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) in the nation: down 21 percent. At the same time, the number of people reporting they bike to work increased 280 percent. The report data came from the Federal Highway Administration’s Highway Statistics and the annual American Community Survey.

"Milwaukee is taking steps to improve its bicycling infrastructure," says Keith Holt of Milwaukee Bicycle Works.

Those improvements have helped boost biking activity year-round in Milwaukee, but there’s still a long way to go, says Dave Schlabowske, communications director for the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin. While some trails like Oak Life are being better maintained during the winter, others like Hank Aaron, which functions as a commuter route, aren’t plowed at all.

"You need to provide convenient, well-maintained trails if you want people to ride bicycles," says Shlabowske. He pointed to Minneapolis as an example. "They’ve built more trails, painted more bike lanes, have more dedicated facilities for bicycling, and they maintain them in the winter."

Although Milwaukee can’t yet claim the title of healthiest city in America, it’s evident the city is doing more to encourage residents to lead healthier lifestyles.

"We’re climbing up there," says Bennett.

Top-level fitness

When The Starr Group implemented its workplace wellness program in 2007, Mary Starr felt compelled to "walk the walk," so she got serious about her own health and fitness routine.

"Health and vitality is truly part of our competitive edge," says Starr, who serves as executive vice president of the Greenfield-based insurance and risk management agency.

Seven years later, Starr’s commitment to healthy living has paid off. In 2012 and 2013, she earned the title of Fittest Exec in the Female 50+ category. The contest, presented by BizTimes Media and sponsored by the Wisconsin Athletic Club, challenges CEOs and other top-level executives to lead personal fitness, corporate health and wellness by example.

"Throwing my name in the bucket shows my commitment," Starr says. "I take being a role model very seriously."

Starr won the Fittest Exec honors based on the results of a biometric screening and fitness test.

A self-professed sporadic exerciser before The Starr Group put its wellness program in place, Starr now works out six to seven days per week. She’s an avid runner and also enjoys Bikram yoga, swimming and biking.

"Working out is my No. 1 stress reliever," she says. "It’s my time to think and problem-solve."

-Rebecca Konya - Photo by Dan Bishop

Food as Medicine

For an increasing number of people in metro Milwaukee, getting healthy means going back to school.

"The demand is growing," says Monica Navarrete Nolan, executive director of NuGenesis Farm in Oconomowoc, which offers multiple private and public cooking and nutrition classes year-round. "Sadly, the demand is growing as disease is growing."

Classes such as the ones featured at NuGenesis teach how to grow, cook and understand food, and how food can be used as medicine. "You have to realize how you learn and figure out what you want to achieve," Navarette Nolan says about determining which classes best fit each individual. "You have to decide if you want to be hands-on vs. watching and listening."

Discovering new and healthier ways to prepare fruits and vegetables leads to better nutrition, a healthier lifestyle and often times, increased family time at the dinner hour.

"It’s profound," Navarrete Nolan says. "Even the act of sitting down and eating together in our culture feels cutting edge to just get back to the basics of food.

"By far, our most popular course is build-your-own-pizza that features a lot of families who work in the garden, harvest their own food, chop up their own produce and make their own vegetarian pizza.

"Parents tell me their kids who never ate vegetables are transformed once they’ve been in the garden and see how vegetables grow," she says.

Viewing food as medicine doesn’t mean discounting the importance of prescribed medicine, as health-care professionals are growing in the appreciation of nutrition classes that can help doctors achieve better outcomes with their patients.

"The medical community is really on the bandwagon seeing food as medicine," Navarrete Nolan says. "It doesn’t have to be one or the other. We ought to be utilizing our traditional medicine and pairing it with food, striking a balance between those two different sectors that have been traditionally separated. The better we can spread that message, I think the better off our entire nation will be."

- By Mark Concannnon

Open Your Wallet and Find Happiness

If your New Year’s resolution to get healthier needs a boost — and really, whose doesn’t? — one answer may be as close as your checkbook or calendar.

Experts say that donating money or time to a favorite cause can reduce health-damaging factors such as stress, anxiety, pain and high blood pressure.

The so-called "giver’s glow" or "helper’s high" enhances a person’s social network and being part of a community, says Nakia S. Gordon, assistant professor of psychology at Marquette University.

"Once people’s basic needs are met, one of the primary things that gives them a sense of positive well-being is to have meaning in life, and giving of oneself can provide that type of meaning," says Gordon.

Philanthropy doesn’t just mean mega-giving such as the 18 million shares of stock donated to charity in both 2012 and 2013 by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Maybe you’re a "maker" (a buzzword cited by the website Philanthropic People) and can share your talent for producing old-fashioned handmade goods.

When people are in a good mood, they tend to help others, according to the World Happiness Study. Helping others in turn fosters a good mood, the 2013 report adds. In a similar vein, another study linked spending money on other people — known as prosocial spending — with greater happiness, in rich and poor countries alike.

But the notion is hardly new. According to the beloved play "The Matchmaker," set in the 1880s: "Money is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around encouraging young things to grow."

Looking for a local nonprofit organization to donate to? Check out and type in Milwaukee for a list of nonprofits and reviews about the organizations.

- By Cathy Breitenbucher

A day at the office for Ken Hanson.

Agency Elite

Known as America’s leading active lifestyle agency, Hanson Dodge Creative is committed to creating a healthier, more sustainable world.

With that kind of work ethic, it’s no surprise the Milwaukee-based marketing firm has earned accolades as one of North America’s 46 Healthiest Companies. For the second year running,, a fitness, health and happiness website, named Hanson Dodge to its healthiest companies list, alongside some of the world’s most recognized brands like GE, Google, Nike and Microsoft. The list is organized according to company size.

The firm also has made Outdoor magazine’s Best Places to Work list two years in a row.

"Health and fitness is a big part of who we are," says Ken Hanson, founder and CEO of Hanson Dodge.

Hanson Dodge, which counts outdoor brands like Trek Bicycle, Thule and Wilson Sporting Goods among its clients, practices what it preaches. The firm’s Third Ward office features an on-site gym and employee-taught yoga classes. During warmer weather, bikes and kayaks are available for employee use.

Hanson says even employee gatherings outside the office tend to revolve around active pursuits like camping, bike trips and rock climbing.

"People want to be healthier and work in an environment that encourages them to be their best," he says.

By - Rebecca Konya - Photo by Dan Bishop


This story ran in the March 2014 issue of: