In Howard, the Fight Against Flab Includes Fun

Laquan Anderson, left, and Rayner Johnson, both 6, limber up on Sunday with help from Kahla Gueno at Healthy Howard Day in Ellicott City.
Laquan Anderson, left, and Rayner Johnson, both 6, limber up on Sunday with help from Kahla Gueno at Healthy Howard Day in Ellicott City. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
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By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 2, 2008

Emily Purnell and Victoria Korzec took a turn in the batting booth. They did exercises at a kiddie boot camp -- learning all about "goofy" jumping jacks and bike-pedaling stretches -- then wandered with Victoria's mom toward the food booths at Healthy Howard Day.

"I liked the green beans with Japanese mayonnaise," said Emily, an 11-year-old from Columbia, thinking over the half-dozen samples of new food she had tried. "And the apple chips," she added. "Those were good. They were very good."

It was all in a day of health consciousness-raising in Ellicott City, where government and community leaders created a festival of health-minded activities, as part of a local effort to respond to the nation's struggle against obesity.

Over six hours or so, hundreds of people milled around the Centennial Park gathering, where the games involved exercise, the food included fruit and vegetables, and everything was free. Fairgoers collected information about bike paths, yoga, sports camps, cancer awareness, energy drinks.

There was Pam Isabel, 55, of Woodstock who took part in the 5K run that preceded Healthy Howard Day, then found herself spontaneously joining a high-energy Zumba exercise class at the park. "I love it," she said, after 20 invigorating minutes of dance-based exercise, set to Latin music. "It's very aerobic, but it's not very hard."

For Kay Brady, 51, who came with her 4-year-old niece, Valerie, the day was a chance to take advantage of free health screenings. Brady is unemployed and has no health insurance. "This is vitally important to my health," she said.

The day's events, organized in large part by the nonprofit group We Promote Health, had started with comments by County Executive Ken Ulman and County Health Officer Peter Beilenson, who talked about Howard's larger effort to promote public health.

The county has recognized restaurants that meet its good-health guidelines and has created other health-minded initiatives for schools, housing, recreation programs and, soon, workplaces.

Beilenson pointed out that in spite of Howard's affluence -- reflected in most health indexes -- the county does less well on measures of healthy eating habits and its overweight adult population. On those issues, he said, Howard is "at or worse than the state average."

He suggested that one explanation may be Howard's large number of two-career couples who commute long distances to jobs and may have less time for exercise and meal planning.

Healthy living, he said, is "not rocket science" and primarily means eating nutritiously, wearing seat belts, exercising and not smoking cigarettes. "If you're doing those four things, you're doing as much as anyone needs to live a healthy life," he said.

These ideas took many forms on the park grounds, where Jason Kaplan and his three sons, Matthew, 11, and twins Jeremy and Aaron, who are 9, began the day with a one-mile fun run -- the boys' first organized race event.

Kaplan, 39, said that the family is conscientious about healthy eating but that the boys may need more physical activity. During his childhood, he said, he was outside all the time. "You form habits as a kid," he said.

His son Matthew was thinking more concretely. Impressed by the race, he set a new goal: running a 5K next time -- and besting his friend, who ran it yesterday.

Nearby, Kristin and Mark Murray of Oakland Mills watched two of their daughters, Brianna, 5, and Micaela, 4, enjoy a 10-minute exercise game. "It's free, and we're all about being healthy," said Kristin, 35, who said the family of six recently started jogging at a high school track together. "We just really want to instill in them how important it is."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company