For Bannon, getting Madison County healthier starts with getting residents active

Mar. 27—ANDERSON — As vice president of community engagement and chief foundation officer at Community Hospital, Tom Bannon spends much of his time thinking about how Madison County can become healthier.

Last year, Madison County ranked among the least healthy counties in the state, according to the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps Survey, administered by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. The county's ranking of 84th out of 92 counties for health outcomes continued a regrettable trend that has seen it fail to place higher than 75th every year since 2011.

Reversing that trend has been, and remains, a challenge that Bannon calls "daunting." The problem has roots, according to some experts, that stretch back decades and span generations.

Bannon, who has worked with Community Hospital for nine years, spent two years researching the issue before obtaining a doctorate in public health from Indiana University. He interviewed a total of 30 people who either live or work in the county to get their thoughts on the overall general health of the county's residents; its environment for encouraging physical activity; and the origins of the area's general decline in health.

"One person wasn't sure if maybe we were always an unhealthy community, but the fact that we were an economically stable community masked that," Bannon said. "So in their view, it may be that we have developed these bad habits for years, even when GM was in town."

Bannon's research provided a springboard to develop Community in Motion, a series of events and programs designed to promote physical activity across the county. The initiative, still in its infancy, is working on recruiting sponsorship partners for everything from golf outings without carts to pickleball and tennis tournaments, laser tag, biking and walking and running clubs.

Underpinning all of the events, Bannon said, will be efforts to remove barriers — financial and otherwise — to regular physical activity. He said fostering a sense of community among residents is also one of the goals of the project.

"Whenever we have an opportunity to engage and we continue to see people in that capacity, physical fitness, I think that strengthens our community," said Stephenie Mellinger, administrator with the Madison County Health Department. "There's a sense of accountability there — I'm going to see you next week at the next tournament, right? There's a camaraderie, and that just strengthens our community relations, so I think that's encouraging."

Bannon was recently appointed to the newly created Madison County Park and Recreation board, a group which is being tasked with incubating plans to expand recreational opportunities in the county — including the development of a countywide system of parks which some officials hope will someday be connected by a series of walking and bike trails.

Becoming collectively healthier will be a painstaking process, Bannon acknowledges. He said the initiative's success may not be known for years or even decades.

"When you say, hey, we want to improve the health scores, that is something that we're not going to know if we've succeeded for a decade or more," Bannon said. "It's a slow, consistent task, and it's a huge apple that we're taking a bite out of.

"But this is the tip of an iceberg that could impact so many more things."

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