Advocating health at the grass roots level is simple and effective.
During his welcome inspiration address at 2005 IDEA Fitness Fusion—Chicago® last April, Jay Blahnik,1996 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year and senior education consultant for the Nautilus Institute™, talked about how fitness professionals are on the front line of health promotion and advocacy. He referred to the fitness industry as “plan A” in the fight against obesity and sedentary living. The fitness industry veteran encouraged those gathered to get out in their respective communities and “make things happen.”
What are you doing? Are you making things happen in your hometown? Or do you sit in your armchair and rant about how little is being done in regard to health promotion? Instead of commenting from the sidelines, take the initiative and light a flame beneath your policymakers. According to the nonprofit organization Health Promotion Advocates, on average, 20,000 pieces of legislation are introduced during each 2-year congressional session. Only 2,000 are voted out of committee for consideration by the full Senate or House, and only 1,000 become law. Those that do become law typically take 6 years to pass; with that in mind, now is the time to start making a difference. And it begins with you.
Being an advocate for health and fitness isn’t a complicated process, according to Leslie Spencer, PhD, associate professor in the department of health and exercise science at Rowan University and co-chair of the Health Promotion Advocates Grass Roots Committee. “We find that we often attract health promotion professionals who are interested in knowing what we do, but don’t want to commit to advocacy,” she says. “The advocacy process is simple, takes little time, is rewarding and is a great learning experience.”
Governed by a board of directors, Health Promotion Advocates has four standing committees and relies on support from others who endorse its vision. In a nutshell, the group strives to “promote healthy lifestyles among all Americans, thereby reducing medical costs and utilization, improving quality of life and enhancing productivity.”
The organization follows a “two-pronged approach” to garner support. First, a policy expert makes contact with the congress member’s staff and reviews the legislation in detail. Second, a grass-roots advocate makes a follow-up call or visit to reiterate the importance of the bill in question. Health Promotion Advocates provides background information, templates, suggestions and cues on how to do this effectively.
Let’s say you want to let your congressional representative know your stance on the Health Promotion FIRST Act, which provides a framework for future health endorsement initiatives. The following seven steps outline how you might make a difference on the grass-roots level as an advocate:
1. Make yourself familiar with all the research and background information related to the legislation. Read newspapers, the Internet and trade magazines. Prepare yourself to be a resource on the issue.
2. Determine the position your senators and representative are taking and let them know how you feel about it. If you don’t know who your congressional representatives are, go to http://congress.org, enter in your ZIP code, then click on the button by their names. Don’t forget to write down their telephone numbers.
3. Write a letter. Health Promotion Advocates and other organizations, such as the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD) and the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), have sample letters on their websites. However, it’s best to use your own voice and style. Typed or handwritten correspondence (snail mail) is more persuasive than e-mails, which are simply counted as being “pro” or “con” and rarely read. Letters signify a larger investment in time and energy from you, the constituent.
4. Pick up the phone and call! This is an even better idea than letters. A telephone call gives you the chance to develop rapport and dialog with your representative or her staff. It enables you to ask questions on the spot and receive immediate feedback (for tips on how to prepare for your call, see the sidebar “Before You Dial”).
5. Contact your local newspaper and ask to speak to the health editor about how the legislation might affect the local community and why it’s important to cover it.
6. Let your friends and colleagues know about the issues. Arm them with the same information you have and give them resources so they can start making their own phone calls.
7. Nothing beats a personal visit with your representative. Make an appointment, walk into his office and let him know how you feel about the legislation. Be clear and professional and tell him what you would like him to do. Very few people visit their representative—it makes an impact!
Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, once said, “We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee.” One small act by a fitness professional can make a big impact on how others view health and wellness.
The time to get involved is now, says Spencer, to allow momentum to build. She also thinks advocacy will ensure long, rewarding careers. “The future of our profession depends upon building health promotion into our culture so that it becomes as essential as medical care. We know that it is the best solution to the leading causes of premature death and disease, yet funding for health promotion lags far behind that of medicine.
“To make health promotion an important and recognized priority for our nation, we must advocate for increased funding to support programs and research at the national level. The long-term effect of this will be to create effective and efficient programs and ensure that they are accessible to all Americans. If this doesn’t happen, health promotion will continue to be seen and treated as an “extra” or “perk” that organizations will support only when there is surplus funding, and careers in [this area] will continue to be limited in terms of their availability and growth potential.”
Before You Dial
Telephone contact with congressional representatives is a great way to advocate your viewpoint on important health- and fitness-related legislation. Before you make the first phone call, be prepared. Here are some tips from Health Promotion Advocates (www.healthpromotion advocates.org):
- Prepare an outline.
- Consider scripting your opening statement.
- Introduce yourself and who you represent.
- Request that the senator/representative support the legislation (identify title, number, sponsor).
- Provide a rationale at your state level.
- Ask for any questions.
- Ask if the senator/representative will support the legislation.
- Extend a sincere thank you.
Governed by a board of directors, Health Promotion Advocates has four standing committees and relies on support from others who endorse its vision.
IDEA’s campaign unites our members with those of other organizations in a joint effort to reach out to nonexercisers. Our commitment is to provide you with information and sources so you can act locally.