Westchester County, New York recently hosted its first Be Fit Nutrition Summit, a half-day conference exploring solutions to the obesity epidemic sweeping the nation. The seminar was a big success, with roughly 200 Westchester County residents in attendance.

County Executive Andrew Spano launched the ”Be Fit Westchester” initiative in 2004, focusing on strategies to help residents find ways to improve their diets and increase their activity levels to thwart obesity and preventable chronic diseases.

Through a variety of programs and tools, Be Fit Westchester helps residents find attainable, practical ways to improve their overall health through reasonable diet and exercise. “It’s important for residents to feel like these strategies are within reach – that staying in good shape doesn’t need to be difficult,” says Vicky Hochman, Deputy Communications Director for Westchester County.

From the county’s vantage point, it makes more sense to spend money on preventive measures rather than on the costs associated with health problems.

One of the County’s first programs introduced as part of the Be Fit initiative is its Mall Walk program, which now garners over 250 participants. Through a partnership between the county and a local mall, the program encourages residents – many of whom are senior citizens – to walk the mall twice a week. Participants are encouraged by incentives (number of miles walked, for example) and by special programs.

The Be Fit initiative has been very successful, not only in helping residents find practical ways to improve their health, but also by letting them know that there are people out there that can help and guide them.

Westchester County is also currently considering posting calorie counts at restaurants (following New York City’s lead), as well as a ban on trans fats in local restaurants, although at this point, both are voluntary.

Through the years, Westchester County has stood out for having a web site that reaches out to residents in ways beyond usual government business. And that’s no accident.

Vicky Hochman says that County Executive Spano has made a consistent effort to make government more “user-friendly” to county residents. From materials that increase citizens’ awareness of online shopping scams to or help parents raise alcohol-free teens, Westchester’s web site is full of informative resources, including information on its many programs and initiatives.