U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, the man called “America’s Doctor,” brought a seemingly simple message to Austin on how people can live healthier lives: Walk. Be kind.
Barriers to both exist in a society that often devalues exercise as a chore and kindness as a weakness, said Murthy, who spoke at the Blanton Museum of Art and walked all over the University of Texas campus Thursday, led by a former UT alum and his chief of staff, Parag Mehta. Despite challenges, there are solutions, he said.
“If we want to create better health for everyone, we need … to change the environment to support healthy choices and increase emotional well-being and resilience,” Murthy said at the 10th annual Michael & Susan Dell Lectureship in Child Health.
The Senate confirmed his appointment as surgeon general in December 2014, after a yearlong delay, the result of Murthy angering the National Rifle Association by calling gun violence, which kills 30,000 Americans a year, a public health issue. In his role, he communicates health messages to the public, he said, and wants to cultivate “a culture of prevention,” one that not only encourages people to eat better and exercise but also nurtures a healthier mind and spirit.
In a recent visit to Flint, Mich., where 90,000 residents learned their water had been contaminated by lead for two years, Murthy said he was struck by the community’s pride and willingness to rebuild. A question that stayed with Murthy, after he heard from parents who regretted that they had allowed their children to drink water they were told was safe, is one, he said, he hopes all parents and policymakers will always ask: “How could we do better by our children?”
With 1 in 3 American children overweight, Murthy urged public health decision makers to forge partnerships with others, including departments of transportation, politicians and nonprofits to create safer neighborhoods with sidewalks for strolling and trails for enjoying the outdoors.
Encouraging children to choose fruits and vegetables is more associated with pain than pleasure, he said. Yet, when kids are exposed to healthier foods at younger ages and are taught to prepare those foods in ways they enjoy, they go home and ask for it, he said.
Good health, however, goes beyond all of that, he said.
“If we want to improve the health of our children, we can’t just focus on the body. We need to focus on the mind and spirit,” he said.
Many children are stressed, depressed and anxious, especially those who live in poverty or experience discrimination, he said.
He visited a middle school and high school in San Francisco where the vast majority of students have opted into a meditation program and have become calmer, less anxious and better able to sleep at night.
In the middle school, 95 percent of the students take part in the meditation program twice daily for 15 minutes. Suspensions dropped 45 percent, Murthy said.
It’s important to model kindness, he said, encouraging parents as well as heads of organizations to “lead by example.”
Murthy, who received a standing ovation, was chosen to give the lecture because his prevention message resonates with the work being done by the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living, said Deanna Hoelscher, director of the center at the UTHealth School of Public Health Austin Regional Campus.
“I think it’s a great time for the surgeon general to visit Central Texas with the new medical school and with the energy and focus on health,” Hoelscher said. “It’s a good way for him to bring his message here and for us to give him an idea of what we’re doing.”