Improving Communities One Step at a Time: CHWs and Environmental Health

Author: Brenda Gonzales, CHW, MPH

Community Health Workers (CHWs) are trusted members of their community and are critical in improving individual, community and environmental health. They advocate, provide culturally appropriate health education and information, and give informal counseling and guidance on health behaviors. CHWs have a deep understanding of the communities they serve through lived experiences, making them distinctively qualified to address environmental issues faced by communities. CHW and environmental intervention models have already been practiced, specifically for asthma in children and were highly effective. This model utilized CHWs to deliver culturally appropriate education addressing multiple environmental triggers for asthma, correct use of medication and trigger reduction behaviors. 

Using this same CHW and environmental intervention model, we can help address the obesity epidemic highly faced in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) in Texas. Not only can CHWs teach communities appropriate health education on obesity reduction behaviors and tips, but they can also help assess and advocate for the built environment surrounding these communities. One factor that many people do not take into consideration when thinking about the health of a community is the importance of the design or the environment surrounding it. 

Walkable communities or activity-friendly communities have been linked to promotion of physical activity, safer, and better communities to live. It has been observed that people who move to walkable communities spend less time in their car and more time walking, thus decreasing air pollution and increasing overall health. The presence of sidewalks has been previously linked to an increase in physical activity among women and men of different socioeconomic status. 

The RGV is a prime example of non-activity friendly communities, lacking sidewalks in the more rural cities/towns, which might be a factor influencing a high obesity prevalence in these communities. Building walkable communities, by implementing addition of sidewalks or improvement of community design, in conjunction with the utilization of CHWs advocating and teaching communities about obesity reduction behaviors, may be the key to promote physical activity in the RGV and address the obesity epidemic.

Interests: Environmental health, built environment, obesity, rural communities, physical activity