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Ways of Seeing: Vt. health care could use a little prevention

Gov. Shumlin’s admission that Vermont would not be achieving single-payer health care in 2017 has disappointed a lot of people. I even received a sympathy card about it, from a good friend in Portland, Ore.! It is sad to imagine that folks all over the United States may have been looking to Vermont for a workable solution to the healthcare crisis, and now we are letting them down due to budgetary woes.
I just read a fascinating article about a town in eastern Finland that in 1972 had the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of heart attacks in the world. The Finnish Minister of Health appointed a young physician to develop a program to tackle the problem. This young doctor, Pekka Puska, spearheaded a project that over the course of several decades reduced male cardiovascular mortality by 80 percent.
How did he do it? Of course you are welcome to google this (The Finnish Town That Went on a Diet) and read all the details, but I will give you the synopsis: He got people to quit smoking and eat their vegetables. This isn’t rocket science, people. We know how to be healthy, we just need to implement changes in our society so everyone has access to good food.
I love this story because it is really about changing systems, so that individuals can be healthy, rather than trying to change individuals, one by one, and hope that the system will eventually transform. For example, instead of trying to convince John and Jane Doe to eat less meat and drink fewer sugary beverages, let’s pass the soda tax and use the money raised to increase access to farmers’ markets for low-income Vermonters.
In Finland, soda is now served in small glasses, and refills cost money. Therefore you are not likely to drink very much soda. The beverage industry is pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into lobbying against Vermont’s proposed beverage tax. History will show this to be remarkably similar to the tobacco companies fighting tooth and nail against the surgeon general’s warning.
Of course it’s true that every day we make countless choices that affect our health. But it’s also true that the choices we make are influenced, to a huge degree, by our surroundings. In Vermont, it is less common to be a smoker (18 percent of our population smokes, compared to 25 percent of the residents of Tennessee, Alabama and Indiana). Surprise news flash: There are more smokers in the states with fewer laws against smoking! Regulations such as laws that prohibit smoking in bars actually help more people to give up smoking — duh!
Instead of banging our collective Vermont heads against the brick wall of skyrocketing healthcare costs, lets figure out simple, low-tech ways to help Vermonters stay out of the hospital in the first place. From providing every school with a garden and local food education program, to easier access to farmers markets, we can do better.
I think of the work I do in my yoga studio as preventative health care, and so I feel deeply invested in this issue. The old expression “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” seems especially apt. Recognizing that health care is a human right means that from the moment we are born until the time of our death we deserve to be cared for, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. A healthy society is one in which everything is geared toward that understanding.
In yoga practice, we work to create the conditions for strength, openness and resilience. How do we do it? First we carve out time to practice. Second, we find a knowledgeable teacher. Third, we show up. We go to class, we practice at home. To learn anything, we must be humble enough to admit that there is something we can learn. Can we learn something from Finland?
Joanna Colwell is the director of Otter Creek Yoga, in Middlebury’s Marble Works District. When not practicing or teaching yoga, she can usually be found buying or cooking kale.

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