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Ogden • The recipe for wellness isn't complicated and doesn't start or end in the doctor's office, U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin told a conference of Utah public health professionals Tuesday.

Minor lifestyle changes, such as short afternoon walks outside the workplace, can yield big health improvements. Walking, shown by research to reduce the risk of chronic disease, doesn't require a gym membership or special equipment, other than comfortable shoes — and it's doable, she said, urging advocates to "put the joy back" in being healthy.

"What brings you joy may be different than what brings me joy. Some may want to run a marathon. Others may want to fit into an old pair of jeans or sit up all afternoon and play with their grandkids," Benjamin said. "We have to stop telling people what they can't do, what they can't eat, and start telling them what they can do."

To underscore her point "that every little bit helps," Benjamin headed to Salt Lake City after the conference to join Utah Gov. Gary Herbert for a short stroll around the Capitol.

Benjamin, a longtime advocate for the medically underserved, said she had no plans to discuss the Republican governor's resistance to elements of Obamacare, such as its provision to expand Medicaid to cover more of the poor and uninsured.

"We know access to services is a first step to better health," Benjamin said. "But having people take control of their health is just as important."

Benjamin did, however, challenge conferencegoers to tackle growing health disparities.

More than 24 percent of Utahns are obese and 59 percent are overweight, according to the state health department. Rates of obesity are even higher among minorities.

Utah has consistently been ranked among the nation's healthiest states, she said. "You have the lowest smoking rate and lowest prevalence of diabetes. Those are things to be proud of, but there's still work to be done."

Benjamin's professional rise can be traced to the health clinic she founded in a small community along the Gulf Coast of Alabama. After it was twice destroyed by hurricanes and devastated by fire in 2006, she rebuilt the clinic three times.

It was there that Benjamin, a family doctor, learned "my patients had health problems that a prescription plan alone couldn't fix: people who didn't have access to clean drinking water, or who couldn't afford their copays on prescriptions or read enough to understand how to take their medicine as directed."

Research on "social determinants of health" show "poverty and [school] dropout rates are at least as important to health as smoking," which is why disease prevention isn't something that health departments can do on their own, Benjamin said. "We have to meet people and get information to where they are, where they'll see it."

This means, she added, embedding services in schools and partnering with groups as diverse as the Red Cross and Girl Scouts.

And it means getting creative: working with Facebook to flag people at risk for suicide, training hairdressers to preach healthy habits and putting messages in popular mediums, she said. She cited the example of a comedic episode of the TV sitcom "The New Normal" about a gay couple's search for someone to breast-feed their child.

"Cultural competency has nothing to do with the color of our skin. It has to do with meeting people where they are, and allowing them to keep their dignity," Benjamin said. "Health is in everything we do. Health is where we live, work, play and pray." Twitter: @kirstendstewart

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