The Defense Department’s (DOD) Operation Live Well initiative, a long-term campaign to make cultural change so that making a healthy choice becomes the easy choice, is showing success after just a year of existence, a Defense Health Agency official said yesterday.
Public Health Service Capt. Kimberly Elenberg, program manager for the Defense Health Agency’s population health, said Operation Live Well completes its initial demonstration year this month at 14 installations in support of DOD’s aim to improve health care, readiness, quality of life and decrease health-care costs for service members, families, veterans and civilians.
“We have a moral obligation,” Elenberg said of the DOD workforce. “Young men and women are making huge sacrifices for their country, and we need to give them the knowledge and education so they can do the best they can do in their jobs, and make the right choices personally to meet goals they have.”
Operation Live Well is a three-phase initiative, she said. The first phase now under way, centers on education and communication about making healthy choices. When phase one is complete, findings will be analyzed, and the end result will encompass a strategy for a framework that supports DOD health and readiness goals, Elenberg explained.
Operation Live Well is incorporating the National Prevention Strategy, a White House initiative chaired by the U.S. surgeon general. Established in 2011, the strategy focuses on approaches for Americans to achieve improved health and well-being, according to the National Prevention Strategy website.
When Operation Live Well was in development, Elenberg explained, DOD organizations were examined for what health initiatives were being performed well, and what could be improved.
Following those observations, Operation Live Well began its focus on obesity and tobacco use, and placed action plans in place at the 14 selected demonstration installations, she said.
Tobacco use and obesity negatively impact national health, Elenberg noted. The military has a 38 percent “pick-up rate,” of new smokers, she said, adding that the military’s use of tobacco exceeds the national average.
And the monetary cost of maintaining a tobacco habit for a year equals one month’s salary for a young service member, Elenberg added.
“We looked at the health of our overall population and saw nearly 65 percent of our health is related to noncommunicable diseases — not catching something from others, but [illnesses] aggravated by personal choices such as tobacco use or obesity,” Elenberg said.
“We felt this was where we could really make a difference, she said, by educating people to make healthy choices in their lives.
Elenberg said she expects Operation Live Well’s first phase will move into the second phase in about a year to analyze the initial findings, but indicators of the initiative’s success are already paying off.
“We have great leadership,” Elenberg said. “And they’re really looking at the service member as a performance athlete, from the infantry person to the nurse.”
As a nurse who’s been on several deployments, Elenberg said the physical demands are great to carry heavy equipment, hop off helicopters and run into jungles.
“We need to look at ourselves as athletes,” she said. “There’s a lot of support for functional physical training.”
Another finding from the past year is that people are challenged in their food environment, Elenberg said. To address that issue, Operation Live Well encompasses several communities from DOD schools to the commissaries and dining facilities. To change the architecture of food choices that are available, the change must take place in the total environment, she said.
Behavioral health specialists also are making a difference by offering help to those who might make negative choices when it comes to obesity, Elenberg said.
“There often are reasons why folks are overweight,” she said. “Some of it is genetic, some is about accessibility and knowing how to cook with low fat, but some people might eat for comfort or out of anxiety. By [having] a behavioral health component available, it supports behavioral change over time.”
Additionally, while the program’s initial findings show that physical fitness facilities are readily available, there is a “huge gap” in adult sports programs, such as softball and soccer, Elenberg said.
Operation Live well needs to create a “cradle-to-grave” culture, she said, targeting DOD’s population from new recruits to separating service members and veterans as they transition to the Veterans Affairs Department.
“The pool of resources to draw recruits from is decreasing as our nation faces the challenges of [obesity] and physical fitness,” Elenberg said.
Veterans on average gain 5 pounds when they retire from active duty and 1 pound a year thereafter, she said.
“A majority of our retirees are overweight and facing [health] challenges,” Elenberg said. “Part of that is for many years we’ve told people they have to reach their readiness standards, but we haven’t told them why it’s important beyond that,” after they depart the military.
A key element of Operation Live Well lies in its spillover benefits for the civilian community, Elenberg said.
“We have opportunity to lead our nation in many, many ways,” she said. “As a closed community we have an opportunity to implement things and get feedback. As we learn these things, it’s our responsibility to share it with the nation.
“We are part of the leadership that’s changing the culture,” Elenberg added. “We’re lucky to be in that position. It’s another way to serve our country.”