CRESTVIEW — Okaloosa County Health Department statistics underscore what director Dr. Karen Chapman calls "the major ongoing health issues in our community."

CRESTVIEW — Okaloosa County Health Department statistics underscore what 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.

The department’s findings 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 women smoke during pregnancy, vs. 6.9 percent statewide

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

Obesity is increasing, according to data compiled by Katie Cholcher, the health department’s Community Health Improvement coordinator.

In 2007, 22.4 percent of the adult population was obese. That figure had risen to 38.7 percent by 2010.

A community health plan

To combat the problems, the health department is undertaking several initiatives under the Community Health Improvement Plan, Cholcher said.

Three CHIP work groups address tobacco use, prevention and cessation, and promote physical activity and nutrition to battle obesity. Additionally, a group is studying methods of increasing health care access.

The Mobilizing for Healthier Okaloosa initiative comprises government, health care, education, business, nonprofit and citizen representatives who collaborated on the health improvement objectives.

“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 county's 2013-15 health improvement plan states.

Starting off young

On the upside, 61.1 percent of area adolescents receive adequate physical activity, according to Cholcher's statistics. Okaloosa kids beat the statewide average of 59.4 percent who exercise daily, but the county's goal is for 85 percent of young people to get enough exercise.

There's more encouraging news: 88.7 percent of our middle school students and 87.5 percent of our high school kids are at ahealthy 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.

However, county health authorities are tracking alarming substance abuse trends.

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

•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 necessary, Cholcher's report said. However, “only 4.8 percent of Okaloosa County high school students report receiving comprehensive tobacco-use prevention education,” contrasted with 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'

State Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach,has suggested requiring people who use free public health services to invest in their own healthcare.

While the county health department’s Crestview office offers basic dental and pediatric care, one practitioner said the biggest problem is people failing to show up for appointments.

"We get four or five (cancellations) a day," county health department support technician Adrienne Ferguson said. "For some of our services, we went to same-day appointments because of that."

A modest co-pay, even if it's refundable, could remedy the situation, Gaetz has said.

Cindy Hammonds, an administrator with the Crestview Women, Infants and Children health program, said starting walk-in clinics has reduced no-shows.

"It kind of regulates itself," she said.

Local health efforts

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

Several vendors offer healthcare screenings and provide education during the health fair at the Crestview Community Center, which typically draws hundreds of residents.

Health awareness events also include the Baker Health Fair, presented at the community's school near the start of the school year. The Baker Lions Club, which counts children's health as an organizational goal, sponsors the program.

Local doctors and community leaders sponsor the Crestview No Child without Health Care Fair at Crestview High School. It facilitates free health screenings and provides 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 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?

Staying active is important to Larry Caskey, who made his morning walks around the track part of his daily routine — “like brushing my teeth,” he said.

Stephens and Caskey said residents of all ages use the city’s health facilities.

"Different times of day, you'll see different people out here," Caskey said, adding that college students, young mothers with infants in strollers, and "folks in their 80s" are among 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 weather, regulars gather at the park for exercise; some meet exercise buddies to walk the circuit. Fitness groups and tai chi clubs also gather in the park’s green spaces.

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