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Promoting Healthy Behavior—and Policy—Through Play

By SA2020 | Jan 8 2019

At the H-E-B Body Adventure, a four-story exhibit at the Witte Museum, visitors of all ages test their strength, practice relaxation techniques, choose healthy meal options, and view the inner-workings of the digestive system. Visitors interact with each part of the exhibit while scanning a card that collects anonymous responses to questions about their eating and exercise habits. In 2017, the museum recorded half a million responses, compiling unprecedented local health data.

The breakdown of visitors during the museum’s free Tuesdays showed people coming from all over San Antonio, almost equally distributed by zip code and representing multiple generations. Grandparents who had gone to the Witte when they were kids, were bringing their grandkids.

Martha Tovar brought her four-year-old grandson, Mario, last fall. The exhibit, she said, is “so important for San Antonio,” because it teaches residents to eat healthy and exercise. Martha took a video of Mario while he monitored his heart rate and talked to him about eating fruits and vegetables. “It’s what you’re teaching your child, that’s what they’re going to learn,” she said.

Considered one of the most unique museum exhibits in the country, the H-E-B Body Adventure is drawing national attention for the innovative ways in which it is promoting healthy behaviors, and even further—influencing local policy and funding to better meet the needs of San Antonians.

Family Medicine Resident Jean Khara Casillan teaches at H-E-B Body Adventure | Photo by Vanessa Velazquez

The H-E-B Body Adventure is shining a bright light on where to make targeted policies and investments. The data is published annually in the annual H-E-B Body Adventure Report. A few years ago, a cluster of young people acknowledged they didn’t have safe places to play near their homes, so local government used the data to guide funding for “pocket parks.” These small parks are designed and managed by people living in the neighborhoods in which they’ll reside. In addition to being places for physical activity, parks also provide spaces for connecting with neighbors, thereby promoting general well-being and mental health.

Instead of focusing on limited moments within a clinical setting, the museum is able to reshape behaviors of San Antonians and policymakers alike. “We can prescribe change, but a museum, you guys can inspire it,” said Dr. Bryan Bayles, curator of Anthropology and Health at the Witte, his eyes wide, recounting the excitement he felt during a community partner input session.

The H-E-B Body Adventure, now in its fifth year, was mostly recently recognized by the Robert E. Wood Johnson Foundation‘s Culture of Health Prize awarded to four cities improving the health and well-being of residents, including San Antonio.  “If we’re going to turn the needle on these health behaviors, it’s not going to happen in the clinic alone, it’s not going to be any one force that does it,” added Bryan. “It’s going to be a collaboration.”

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