How do you measure success in large-scale, anti-obesity campaigns?
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“What we’re trying to do at the community level is to create the environment that supports individual changes and make options available for people to be healthy,” Bunnell said.
Massachusetts, which last year received CDC grants totalling about $15 million over five years, intends to measure outcomes in some of the 52 communities it awarded the money for anti-obesity and related programs, said Cheryl Bartlett, director for community health and prevention at the state Department of Public Health.
Bartlett said the agency plans to collect data on emergency room visits and hospitalizations in communities that received the grants and compare them with what happens in similar places that didn’t. Researchers will also regularly survey residents in the grant communities about their health and awareness of the programs.
The goal is to reduce obesity, heart disease, and tobacco use by a collective 5 percent across the 52 communities, she said. The 52 represent about a third of the state’s population.
Somerville is among the 52, and will receive $60,000 a year. There are signs that the city’s decadelong head start has started to bear fruit.
An annual health survey found a significant decrease in the percentage of Somerville adults reporting high blood pressure between 2002 and 2008, the most recent data available, while statewide rates rose. The survey found slight increases among those reporting diabetes and high cholesterol in Somerville, but the rate of increase was substantially slower than it was statewide.
On the exercise front, the percentage of Somerville adults who reported regular moderate or vigorous physical activity jumped significantly between 2002 and 2010.
“I bike around Somerville a ton, and I appreciate the demarcations on the road to say, ‘A bike belongs here too,’ ” said Sophia DeVito, 23, while leaving her bike in a corral near Davis Square. She does not own a car and bikes about 8 to 10 hours each week.
Also noteworthy is a sharp drop in the percentage of middle- and high-schoolers who reported drinking sugary beverages. The percentages of Somerville adults who reported they were overweight or obese rose slightly since 2002, but the levels are below statewide figures.
Virginia Chomitz, an assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine who is tracking Somerville's progress, said that while researchers can’t conclusively say the improved exercise and health outcomes are due to the city’s Shape Up Somerville program, it is reasonable to believe they are linked.
“There’s still a whole lot to learn about how this all works out, but we have every reason to think that this is the right way to go,” Chomitz said.
Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone said his city has aggressively sought federal and private grants to fuel its anti-obesity mission. Among the grants was $100,000 a year over four years awarded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
“Much of what we do is not costly,” said Curtatone, who has championed his city’s program nationally. “Without money you can be out mobilizing the community to tap resources and expertise that don’t necessarily come from the city budget.”
The obesity epidemic took years to evolve, and will take time to conquer, Curtatone said. “We feel we need to make a commitment for the long-term,” he said.
Globe correspondent Helen Shen contributed to this story. Kay Lazar can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.