In a state where more than one-third of the residents are obese, Priority Health considers offering a free place to get more exercise as part of its effort to help make people healthier or maintain good health.
The Grand Rapids-based health plan partnered in 2019 with National Fitness Campaign, a San Francisco, Calif.-based wellness consulting firm that develops “fitness courts” in communities across the U.S.
Since then, Priority Health has helped to develop 13 outdoor fitness courts in Michigan through public-private partnerships, the latest of which opened this month in Grand Blanc. Priority Health wants to support the development of at least 30 fitness courts more by the end of 2025, including 10 through the rest of this year.
“Health and well-being require much more than simply access to hospitals and physicians,” Priority Health President and CEO Praveen Thadani told Crain’s Grand Rapids Business.
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“When we think about this initiative, it comes from a fundamental belief that all people have a right to a healthy life. That’s why we’re really invested in communities to help reduce barriers to free, accessible fitness to improve the wellness of our neighbors in our communities across Michigan,” Thadani said. “Our strong belief is that when you have easier access to fitness, you’re more likely to do it. It’s that simple.”
In West Michigan, fitness courts are located in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. Plans for future projects include a site in Benton Harbor.
Each fitness court costs an average of $175,000 to build. Priority Health contributes $20,000 to $25,000 to the cost through grants to local public and private partners, Thadani said. Local contributions and fundraisers generally provide the remaining funding needed for each of the fitness courts, which are typically built in a public park or along a trail.
Priority Health in the last year provided about $200,000 in grants to communities across the state to build a fitness court, “and we’re going to continue to do so,” he said. About half of Priority Health’s 1.3 million members statewide who are enrolled in various health plans have access to a fitness court.
Fitness court projects completed so far have generated about $3 million in public and private investments, an amount that will exceed $10 million by the end of 2025, Thadani said.
“Call us a catalyst. We catalyze these conversations, we help get them built out, and we catalyze the development of the right funding with the communities and with the right businesses,” he said. “They all come together to improve the health and well-being of their communities.”
Priority Health connected with the National Fitness Campaign in 2019 and worked with Oakland University to develop the first fitness court.
Founded in 2012, National Fitness Campaign wants to develop 5,000 fitness courts by 2030 in communities across the U.S. Working with 13 health plans nationwide, the organization has helped to fund nearly 400 fitness courts that attracted $98 million in public and private investments, according to the organization’s 2022 annual report.
Designed to be readily accessible for teens and adults, including for people with disabilities, the fitness courts provide seven exercise stations that encourage physical movement. A user can complete all exercise stations in just seven minutes. Each station is built to leverage a person’s body weight in individual exercises such as pull ups, pushups, squats and lunges to get a complete workout.
Users can download a free app and use it to scan a QR code for workout routines.
A “big part” of why Priority Health became involved with National Fitness Campaign comes from the steady rise in obesity rates and costly chronic illness such as diabetes and heart disease, Thadani said. He considers the initiative as part of “our responsibility to help make communities as healthy as possible.”
“If we’re serious about addressing health, we have to make the state of Michigan healthier, and this is a big part of our initiative to do exactly that,” said Thadani, whose background is in public health.
Across Michigan, 34.4% of residents were obese as of 2022, according to the annual America’s Health Rankings report issued by the UnitedHealth Foundation. More than one in 10 people in Michigan had diabetes, nearly 37% had high cholesterol, and more than 35% had high blood pressure.
America’s Health Rankings ranked Michigan 29th overall in health status in 2022, a level that’s based on several metrics for health outcomes and social determinants of health, such as access to healthy foods. The data indicate that more than 23% of Michigan are physically inactive and just 23.3% exercise.
“There is such a deep prevalence of chronic disease in every community. Michigan’s not unique in that capacity,” Thadani said. “We have to get to the root cause of what causes some of these health issues to exist. That’s why we think that it is part of our responsibility, even as a health insurance company, to ensure that we’re getting to the root causes.”
Those chronic health conditions come with a high cost. Treating coronary artery diseases in a four-county area of West Michigan in 2021 costs an average of about $32,000 per member, according to the latest Health Check report issued by Grand Valley State University’s Seidman College of Business.
The annual report, which uses data from Priority Health, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and its HMO subsidiary, Blue Care Network, put the average annual expenditure for diabetes at nearly $20,000 per member across Kent, Ottawa, Muskegon and Allegan counties.
In a move to improve health, Priority Health signed a two-year partnership with the National Fitness Campaign in 2020 and resigned last September for three more years as the official sponsor in Michigan.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated with clarified information about the length and size of Priority Health’s contract with NFC.
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