CRESTVIEW — The numbers don't mince words when it comes to what Okaloosa County Health Department director Dr. Karen Chapman calls "the major ongoing health issues in our community." Sixty-four percent of the county's population is overweight or obese, and nearly 20 percent smoke.

CRESTVIEW — The numbers don't mince words when it comes to what Okaloosa County Health Department director Dr. Karen Chapman calls "the major ongoing health issues in our community." Sixty-four percent of the county's population is overweight or obese, and nearly 20 percent smoke.

"Tobacco use and obesity are large cost drivers of health care," Chapman said.

Statistics compiled by her department indicate locals surpass the state average in several unhealthy areas:

•19.2 percent of the county population smokes, vs. 17.1 percent statewide;

• 13.6 percent of local women smoke during pregnancy, compared to 6.9 percent statewide;

• 54.9 percent of local adolescents were exposed to second-hand smoke in a one-week period, vs. 47 percent statewide;

Obesity is also on the rise, according to data compiled by health department Community Health Improvement coordinator Katie Cholcher. In 2007, 22.4 percent of the adult population was obese. By 2010 the figure had risen to 38.7 percent.

A community health plan

To combat the problems, the health department is undertaking several initiatives under the Community Health Improvement Plan (CHIP), Cholcher said. Three CHIP work groups were formed to address tobacco use prevention and cessation, and to promote physical activity and proper nutrition to battle obesity. The third group is studying methods of increasing access to health care.

The county's 2013-15 health improvement plan states, “Building a healthier Okaloosa County began as a community-wide initiative with the goal of establishing an ongoing process for identifying and addressing health needs. The intent of this project was to foster successful partnerships within the community in order to improve the health of Okaloosa County residents.

"The Mobilizing for Healthier Okaloosa initiative is composed of representatives from diverse sectors of the community including education, government, health care, business, not-for-profit agencies, and citizens. This group is responsible for developing a Community Health Improvement Plan (CHIP) that guides the community in addressing health and well-being in our communities.”

Starting off young

The good news is, 61.1 percent of area adolescents receive adequate physical activity, Cholcher's statistics show. Local kids beat the statewide average of 59.4 percent, though the county's goal is for 85 percent of local young people to get enough daily exercise.

There's further encouraging news: 88.7 percent of our middle school students and 87.5 percent of our high school kids are at a healthy weight. Our middle school kids are just about at the state average, while Okaloosa County's high schoolers surpass the state average of 85.7 percent.

There are, however, some alarming substance abuse trends that county health authorities are tracking.

•9.1 percent of middle school students and 28 percent of high school kids have used tobacco in the past 30 days, and

•6 percent of middle schoolers and 17.5 percent of high school students have smoked cigarettes in the past 30 days.

For them, comprehensive health information is a must, Cholcher's report said, but "only 4.8 percent of Okaloosa County high school students report receiving comprehensive tobacco use prevention education," as compared to the state's 7.4 percent average, the report stated.

"Health trends that are going to impact our long-term health, such as tobacco use and physical obesity, are issues for our entire community," Chapman said.

'Skin in the Game'

An area state representative has suggested requiring people who take advantage of free public health services to invest in their own healthcare.

While the Crestview office of the county health department offers services including basic dental and pediatric care, one of the service's practitioners said the biggest problem is people failing to show up for their appointments.

It's a concern that State Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fort Walton Beach) says can easily be remedied by a modest co-pay, even if it's refundable.

"Folks don’t value things that are free," Gaetz said during a September 2012 visit to Crestview.

While visiting the local free clinic, he met with a 28-year-old dental hygienist.

“He said, ‘Matt, the hardest part is folks who don’t show up,'" Gaetz related.

“He said, 'the best thing we could do is require a $5 co-pay so people have some skin in the game.' When people show up, it’s an investment in their own healthcare."

County health department support technician Adrienne Ferguson said patients shrugging off appointments is a problem.

"We get four or five a day," she said. "For some of our services, we went to same-day appointments because of that."

Cindy Hammonds, an administrator with the county's Crestview Women, Infants and Children health program, called WIC, said starting walk-in clinics has reduced some of the problem of no-shows.

"It kind of regulates itself," Hammonds said.

Local health efforts

On the local level, the Crestview Area Chamber of Commerce, through its Health and Wellness Committee, addresses the preventive health care and health assessment needs of residents through its annual Community Health Fair, usually held in the fall.

The committee's goal is "to build awareness of many health related organizations available in the Crestview and surrounding areas," according to the committee's website. A variety of vendors offers healthcare screenings and provides education during the health fair at the Crestview Community Center, which traditionally has a turnout of hundreds of residents.

Area health fairs also include the Baker Health Fair, held at the community's school near the start of the school year and hosted by the Baker Lion's Club, which includes children's health as one of its organizational goals.

The Crestview No Child Without Health Care Fair at Crestview High School is sponsored by local doctors and community leaders, including members of the J.L. Conyers Masonic Lodge. It offers families the opportunity for free health screenings and information as kids head back to school.

Crestview's 'outdoor gym'

"One of our community planning groups is focusing on how would we inventory the recreational opportunities where county residents could go walking safely, where they could go to a health facility and walk a track or ride a bike," Chapman said.

Such facilities already exist at the city level. The Crestview Recreation Department's inclusion of exercise equipment along the half-mile walking, jogging and biking trail proved a popular addition to Twin Hills Park.

On a nippy March morning, Crestview resident Marilyn Stephens was getting in a vigorous workout on the rowing machine.

"I like it out here," she said. "There's no traffic. Why get a gym membership when this is available for free?

Now retired, Larry Caskey said keeping active is important so he has made his morning walks around the track part of his daily routine, "like brushing my teeth."

Both Stephens and Caskey said the park's health facilities are well used by citizens of all ages.

"Different times of day you'll see different people out here," Caskey said, saying college students, young mothers with infants in strollers, and "folks in their 80s" are among the regulars he encounters.

"I even see military people in their uniforms walking the track before they go to work," Stephens said.

Except in the most inclement of weather, regulars gather at the park for exercise, some meeting exercise buddies to walk the circuit. Fitness groups and tai chi clubs frequently gather in the park's green spaces as well.

Facilities, education and services are available to help north county residents maintain healthy lifestyles. Taking advantage of them, however, is up to each person.

Contact News Bulletin Staff Writer Brian Hughes at 850-682-6524 or Follow him on Twitter @cnbBrian.