Faces of Public Health: Bill Kohl, PhD

Aug 1, 2014, 1:27 PM

Harold W. “Bill” Kohl, PhD, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Texas School of Public Health is in the midst of a three-year appointment to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition (PCFSN) Science Board. Kohl’s role is to provide recommendations in the areas of program development and evaluation, which is critical to the Council’s mission to engage, educate and empower all Americans across to adopt a healthy lifestyle that includes regular physical activity and good nutrition. During his time at the School of Public Health, Kohl has been researching effective uses of social networking to create demand for healthy lifestyles among youth and working with organizations to promote disease prevention, physical activity and exercise as a health priority.

NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Kohl about the work of the President’s Council.

NewPublicHealth: Is the current mission of the President’s Council different than it was in the past?

Bill Kohl: There has been a shift. The President’s Council started in the 1950s as the result of a small study that suggested that American kids are not as fit as kids in Eastern bloc countries—Russia, primarily. The President’s Council started under President Eisenhower and then President Kennedy’s administrating sought to increase kids’ fitness by doing fitness testing in schools and promoting physical activity and physical education.

That wound its way through the ‘60s and ‘70s. Then in the ‘80s there was a much bigger rush to health-related physical fitness rather than skill-related fitness activities—things that you can actually change and that are related to health outcomes compared to fitness skills you might be born with, such as the ability to run a 50-yard dash.

Then, most recently, the Council has included nutrition in his mission and been renamed.

NPH: How does your background inform your new role?

Kohl: As chair of the science board, my job is to make sure that the President’s Council has the most up-to-date science that’s relevant to its mission and advancing initiatives that are evidence-based.

I continue to push the platform that physical inactivity is every bit as much of a health problem—not just for children, but for adults and older adults—as other critical health issues, such as cigarette smoking. In fact, some very recent data published in a special series of the Lancet a couple of years ago bear that out on a population level—that physical inactivity is every bit a public health problem. It’s been called a pandemic since it has reached across the world, as tobacco use has, and it has to be a major part of not just obesity treatment and prevention, but a standalone issue.

NPH: What role does physical activity play in a Culture of Health?

Kohl: I do think we have to reframe the issue as cultural one, just as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation does in its efforts to create a culture of health in the United States. We can’t just change one thing and then call it a day and declare victory. We have to create this Culture of Health that, particularly from a physical activity standpoint, makes the active choice the easy choice rather than the more difficult choice.

We’ve done a very good job at engineering physical activity out of our daily lives. From the moment we get up to the moment we go to bed, many, many people don’t have to be physically active at all unless it’s the minimal moving themselves around and that, I think, is one of the Culture of Health things that needs to be changed.

NPH: Is there an innovation you’d point to from a group or community that is doing a good job of going from inactivity to greater activity?

Kohl: Specifically in schools we’re starting to see some innovation. The Institute of Medicine just published last year—with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—a report on what schools can do to promote physical activity for children. The idea is that even beyond physical education, the school can become a hub for children to get 60 minutes a day of physical activity—before school, after school, during school, PE, sports, active transportation and so forth—and so the Culture of Health is and innovation that schools can be a part of.

The Miami-Dade School District is one example. Its supervisor, Dr. Jane Greenberg, who is actually on the President’s Council, has created some of these innovations so that, particularly in the face of budget cuts, they’re able to create a school as the hub or a whole school approach to helping kids not just be more active during physical education, but to actually get the recommended 60 minutes or more of physical activity each day.

I think the evidence that has emerged in the last 20 years really points to physical inactivity as its own public health problem, not just a problem that’s wrapped up in obesity or other kinds of things. There are 20 to 25 different disease outcomes right now that physical inactivity is related to. That, I think, is a critical thing to get across. I think we’re facing a real problem in the next some years if we don’t do something about this nationally as well as globally. 

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.