Julia Freeman will never know how much she saved in medical expenses by losing 30 pounds in two years.
She just knows her blood sugar and cholesterol are right, her dress size is 12, and she out-boogied teenagers at a recent charity event.
“I shut them all down,” said Freeman, 52, a mother of three.
Even if she doesn’t know, the state of Minnesota now has a pretty good idea of the potential savings from staying fit. A report released Monday shows that Minnesota made dramatic progress against rising obesity rates — outperforming neighboring states and the national average — and estimates that it prevented $265 million in medical spending from 2010 to 2013.
Monday’s report, produced by the Minnesota Department of Health, is part of an effort to evaluate whether state health improvement grants for things such as running trails, farmers markets and healthy school exercise and snack programs have paid off in the form of reduced medical costs. The State Health Improvement Program (SHIP) grants have come in for budget cuts at the Capitol periodically and face an uncertain future in the Legislature this year.
There is no surefire way to prove a link between the grants and Minnesota’s progress against obesity, but Dr. Ed Ehlinger, state health commissioner, said a leveling of the state’s adult obesity rate coincided with creation of the grant program in 2008.
Ehlinger said he believes the state funding commitment also inspired health care providers, insurers and other organizations to focus on obesity prevention.
“Obesity is a complex condition with many contributing factors,” Ehlinger said. “We know diet and exercise are key.”
The rate of adult obesity peaked in Minnesota at 26 percent in 2007, then stayed slightly below that rate through 2013, according to the state report, which is based on replies to a federal survey of personal health and behaviors. Meanwhile, rates rose to 30 percent in Wisconsin and South Dakota, and to 31 percent in North Dakota and Iowa.
The rate of Minnesotans on the road to obesity — which is defined by a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher — also reversed. Between 2010 and 2013, approximately 60,000 Minnesotans who were either obese or overweight returned to healthy weights.
Grapes for grandkids
Freeman technically remains overweight by her BMI, but the diabetic feels much more energetic, and her healthy behaviors have inspired her children to buy more organic food and provide better meals for her nine grandchildren. Her younger brother recently had a leg amputated due to diabetic complications, and that reminds everyone in the family of the risks of losing their healthy habits.
While not funded by SHIP grants, changes in her community have helped — including a new exercise room in her apartment, and an improved produce section at her neighborhood Aldi grocery store that allows her to load up on grapes for her grandkids.
“They still want something sweet,” she said, “so that’s something sweet at grandma’s house.”
Helping the Freemans of the world with their battles against obesity, smoking and other health hazards was the goal of the SHIP grants when they were first awarded at $47 million in fiscal years 2010 and 2011. They were cut to $15 million the next two years after the recession slashed state tax rolls, then raised to $35 million for the current biennium.
Critics have suggested they aren’t an effective use of state tax dollars. In 2013, Anoka County refused $1 million in SHIP grant money designated, among other things, for the creation of community gardens and the distribution of pedometers to get more people walking and running.
Whether the grants continue, they have inspired communitywide changes that make it easier for individuals to adopt healthy habits, said Dr. Courtney Baechler, vice president of Allina Health’s Penny George Institute for Health and Healing.
“It’s making it the cultural norm — that the easy choice is to be biking to work or eating the right food,” she said. “The community is changing so much.”