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40 Proven Strategies to Improve Public Health

TUESDAY, Aug. 21 (HealthDay News) -- A review of more than 1,000 scientific studies has come up with more than 40 proven strategies for improving public health.

Among the tactics backed up by evidence that were included in an American Heart Association statement: policies that make healthy foods affordable, limits on advertising unhealthy foods to kids, bans on smoking in public and walkable communities.

"Policy makers should now gather together and say, 'These are the things that work -- let's implement many right away and the rest as soon as possible,'" Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, chairman of the statement-writing group, said in an American Heart Association news release. "We have compiled an evidence-based menu of effective interventions for policy makers, stakeholders and the public based on the results of numerous scientific studies."

The statement is published in the journal Circulation.

To write the statement, researchers examined more than 1,000 studies to determine which public-health strategies had the strongest evidence for reducing smoking rates, improving diet and increasing physical activity. They identified 43 interventions with the strongest evidence for effectiveness.

In school, school-garden programs, more playgrounds and structured physical activity were associated with improvements in children's health. At work, wellness programs and breaks for physical activity during work hours have shown effectiveness.

Economic incentives that make healthy foods more affordable and that discourage people from eating unhealthy foods may improve dietary habits, according to the review.

Bans on smoking in public places and increased taxes on tobacco products help curb smoking.

Direct mandates and restrictions on certain ingredients in food, such as salt and trans fats, as well as limiting advertising of unhealthy foods and drinks to children, also have evidence showing they can be effective in improving public health.

Other strategies to improve public health include placing supermarkets closer to people's homes, designing walkable neighborhoods and providing easier access to recreational areas from homes, schools and businesses.

The research also showed that media and education campaigns about healthy foods and the dangers of cigarettes can help.

The researchers said there was not enough evidence to determine if nutritional labeling or icons on food packages and menus encourage healthier eating. Evidence also was lacking on whether access to fast-food restaurants or convenience stores negatively affected people's weight or eating habits.

"As a society, we must implement evidence-based, cost-effective public-health interventions without delay -- we now know they work," said Mozaffarian, associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston.

More information

The World Health Organization provides more information on global strategies for improving diet, physical fitness and health.

-- Mary Elizabeth Dallas

SOURCE: American Heart Association, news release, Aug. 20, 2012

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