Local government leaders know that when residents are choosing a place to live, they weigh familiar issues — job opportunities, cost of living, climate, safety. But a national study suggests they can add another issue to that list: Is it a healthy place?

That is essentially the idea behind the “County Health Rankings & Roadmaps” issued by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute. The report, issued annually since 2010, ranks the health of nearly every county in the nation. It examines a range of health factors — such as exercise frequency and the quality of clinical care — as well as health outcomes, including the key question of how long people in the county live.

The conclusion? “Where we live, learn, work and play has a big role in determining how healthy we are and how long we live,” says Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, the foundation’s president and CEO.

Government programs and policies can affect health factors and outcomes, the report says. That includes changing behaviors, such as encouraging residents to eat healthy diets and exercise, and targeting outcomes, such as improving longevity.

Hernando, Miss., has taken that message to heart. The northeast Mississippi town of about 14,000 people is the county seat of Desoto County. For two consecutive years, 2011 and 2012, the “County Health Rankings” rated Desoto as the healthiest county in Mississippi for health outcomes. Hernando is home to the largest farmers’ market in Mississippi and was designated the healthiest hometown in the state in 2010 by Blue Cross & Blue Shield.

Hernando officials have made fostering good health a policy. For example, they are making the city’s “built environment” more conducive to good health. When Mayor Chip Johnson came into office in 2005, Hernando did not have a parks department, so he started one. City parks have been revamped. The city also has added sidewalks and bike lanes, and widened roads.

The changes are “taking down the barriers” that might discourage residents from spending more time outside exercising, says Shelly Johnstone, Hernando’s director of community development. Wider roads, for instance, allow more space for pedestrians and bicycles.

“People are drawn to the outside when the quality of the outside living environment is good and positive,” Johnstone says. “So, design standards are very important, tree ordinances, all the things that make it less hostile to the senses to be outside, biking and walking.”

The city started the farmers’ market in 2008, and it attracts hundreds of people on Saturdays from May through October. At first, it was a small step toward encouraging residents to eat more healthy food. “We started with three vendors in the middle of the season,” says Johnstone, who still manages the market. “None of them sold fresh fruits and vegetables. They were all preserved and canned items. By the end of the season, we had 15 vendors and were actually selling fresh fruits and vegetables.”

The city also has set up a gym for city employees in an old warehouse, and it cooperates with schools and other groups to sponsor activities like basketball, soccer and bicycling. Of course, much of good health involves lifestyle and personal choices. Hernando officials say their goal is to make government a partner in residents’ healthy living choices. “The whole idea behind the county health rankings,” Johnstone says, “is that where you live matters. And it does matter.”

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