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Liz McNett Crowl describes herself as “a health and fitness professional.” We know her as a true public health champion. Even before she helped to create the Washington State Nutrition and Physical Activity Plan, McNett Crowl was busy leading initiatives for health and fitness at the YMCA in Skagit County. There she grew concerned that health and fitness was not catching on. “We weren’t making a dent in rates of physical activity in children and adults,” she says.
During this time, the Skagit Valley Herald convened a group of key stakeholders who identified 12 root issues relating to health in the county. All but one were negative issues such as smoking and alcoholism. The only positive element was the opportunity to increase County residents’ physical activity. They decided to support increasing physical activity for heath and this became a pivotal point in community development around the issue.
McNett Crowl has been a dedicated member of the Washington State Physical Activity Coalition and in 1992 she came together with other local advocates to create a Physical Activity Coalition in Skagit County. “The coalition captured part of the movement to increase activity that really took off after 1996 Surgeon General’s report.” Since physical activity can prevent chronic disease and mitigate the effects of some others, McNett Crowl saw that funders would be interested in the Coalition’s focus. The Skagit Physical Activity Coalition can claim many successes. For example, a group of older adults were interested in walking, but they needed guidance on safe routes. This led to walking and bicycle maps that are still updated every other year. As Crowl says, “We also created the first base map for the County by marrying GIS and Public Works data.” In 2010, McNett Crowl recruited 16 child care sites to pilot an after school physical activity and nutrition program. “This project was evaluation intensive,” said McNett Crowl, “but it paid off as we were able to demonstrate that the new pilot was effective at significantly increasing the number of minutes of physical activity per day, changing nutrition knowledge and behaviors and reducing screen time.”
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McNett Crowl began serving with other advisors in 2001 to develop the State Plan. She remembers wondering, “How far upstream can we go to create changes to make it easy for people to make the healthy choice?” The group looked for environmental and policy models to change culture and promote physical activity.
In 2003, the Department of Health selected Mount Vernon as a Healthy Communities pilot site. The community chose to focus on increasing the number of healthy community environments and increasing the number of physical activity opportunities available to children. McNett Crowl assembled a School Nutrition and Physical Activity Policy Committee and an Urban Trails Committee to help with the work. Their work on developing a school wellness policy occurred almost simultaneously with the federal government’s creating school wellness policies.
“One of the most successful projects we took on was Safe Routes to School,” says McNett Crowl. To date Skagit County Schools have received over 1.5 million dollars for Safe Routes. She points out that walking or biking to school is one of the easiest ways for kids to get physical activity. It made sense for communities to plan walking and biking routes for children to get school -- rather than just planning bus routes. Walking, biking and bussing to school is student transportation. According to McNett Crowl, “We are very proud of our work for Safe Routes, if kids can be safe walking and biking then the environment is safe for all community users.”
Ten years ago, Liz McNett Crowl felt she had to “infiltrate” the work of the planners and transportation professionals. Now she reflects that these efforts have taken on a timeless quality. “We have convinced enough key stakeholders, earned their support and confidence, so that others will listen,” she says. “They know it is the right thing to do, they just needed help and a friendly nudge. That’s what we do, we connect the dots, make it easier to do the right thing for health.”
Featured: September 2011
Nutrition and physical activity practitioners in Washington