Top Athletes and Community Health Experts Explore Resiliency at Total Health Forum

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Laila Ali speaking at the 2018 Total Health Forum sponsored by Kaiser Permanente
Laila Ali speaking at the 2018 Total Health Forum

When the total health of individuals — particularly young people — is fostered, it results in stronger, safer communities, agreed experts speaking Thursday night at the third annual Total Health Forum at the Georgia World Congress Center, co-hosted by Kaiser Permanente and the National Basketball Association (NBA).

Too often, mental or emotional conditions are ignored, with physical ailments receiving most of the attention. But a person’s total health — mind, body and spirit — needs to be addressed in order to create communities that thrive, said Chairman and CEO Bernard J. Tyson.

“We can only be as healthy as our communities,” he said.

Kaiser Permanente Chairman and CEO Bernard J. Tyson, NBA Hall of Famer and Global Ambassador Dikembe Mutombo, and NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum.

From left to right: Chairman and CEO Bernard J. Tyson, NBA Hall of Famer and Global Ambassador Dikembe Mutombo, and NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum.

NBA and WNBA teams and players lead yearlong youth-centered efforts that recruit mentors, create safe spaces in cities across the country, engage kids of all ages in basketball’s fundamentals and values, and bridge divides in communities. Players also continue to use their platforms to speak openly about stress, anxiety and depression in an attempt to reduce stigma tied to mental and emotional health. With millions of followers and fans, it’s an opportunity for the world’s top players to make a difference as role models for total health.

“There are few betters examples of resiliency than in sports,” said NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum. “You need to have that skill to bounce back, to work hard, to understand how to get better. And we’re teaching that (to children). It’s not just about dribbling and passing, but life lessons,” said Tatum.

Two-time MVP Stephen Curry agreed. Describing the pressure of being always “under the microscope,” he talked about trying to approach each day with gratitude, and how he unwinds through time with his family and golf.

“It’s tough,” said Curry. “Each day you have to maintain the right perspective. And it all starts with what’s happening between the ears.”

The cohesiveness of the team also depends on the total health of players — and everyone tries to pay attention to the mental and emotional health of each other, and encourage each other as needed, he said. This same attitude needs to be encouraged with young people, he added.

Steph Curry, Two-time NBA MVP

Steph Curry, two-time NBA MVP

“Dealing with anxiety and dealing with depression are real situations that are swept under the rug, and it needs to be addressed,” said Curry. “We need to encourage them to show their emotions and tell people what they’re struggling with. They need to have people they can talk to and get the help they need.”

Don’t give up the fight

Laila Ali, author, boxing champion and youngest daughter of boxing legend Muhammad Ali, said it’s critical to teach the importance of total health to anyone trying to thrive. “No matter the miles you run, nor the kale you eat,” she said, if you don’t recognize the importance of mental and emotional health, you won’t succeed.

To become a boxer, she had to completely change her lifestyle to get ready for the grueling ring, but the greatest challenge might have been winning over her harshest skeptic, her dad. When he learned she wanted to box, he shut her down: “It’s too hard. It’s not for women. It’s a man’s sport and you don’t need to do it,” she recalled him saying.

But she did not back down, and “boxing became my first love.” When asked for tips on how to change healthy habits, she pointed out that food can be “a medicine or a poison” – and suggested that those seeking to add healthier foods start with at least one salad at each day.

Community health: a team sport

The “secret sauce” for healthy communities are passionate, knowledgeable partnerships that listen to the specific needs of the people they’re trying to help. “Think of community health as a team sport,” said Bechara Choucair, MD, Kaiser Permanente’s chief community health officer, while moderating a panel discussion. “What we know now is a lot of what impacts health happens outside the doctors’ office.”

This is particularly true with children, according to Aaron Dworkin, President of After-School All-Stars, which provides comprehensive after-school programs that keep children safe and help them succeed in school and in life. Most health habits are set by 13, he said, and if a child “is not safe and not healthy, (they’re) not really caring what the teacher has to say.”

Collective impact

The partnership of Kaiser Permanente and the NBA works because it pairs the preventive focus and health research of Kaiser Permanente with the nation-wide community engagement platform of the NBA.

“This was a way for two great organizations to make a difference,” said Tatum. “We saw an opportunity to create stronger, safer communities.”

“It was excellent meeting with leaders to discuss total health solutions for our communities to grow and thrive,” added Tyson. “Our shared goal is to inspire hope and offer realistic solutions to our communities.”