Dr. Louis Sullivan finds that a little walking goes a long way

Founder of the Sullivan 5K, Dr. Louis Sullivan is the former Secretary of Health and Human Services from 1989 to 1993. — Photo by Michelle Gross

In the summer of 1989, the same year George H. W. Bush appointed Dr. Louis Sullivan U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Dr. Sullivan and his wife, Ginger, started a five-kilometer race on Martha’s Vineyard. Now known as the Sullivan 5K Run/Walk, the race that has raised approximately $300,000 to benefit Martha’s Vineyard Hospital over the years will celebrate its 25th year this Saturday, starting at 9 am.

In an interview with the Times on Tuesday, Dr. Sullivan discussed the importance of 5K to the Vineyard, his concerns about the current U.S health care system, and his days as a trumpeter at Morehouse College.

Where did the idea to start the Sullivan 5K come from?

In 1970, my wife and I decided that we needed to develop an exercise program for a number of reasons, primarily weight control, and we really developed a habit in walking that we enjoyed. So when I became Secretary of Health in 1989 I was continuing that habit which really had been ingrained in my daily activities. I was aware of the fact that at the Department of Health and Human Services, being new there were a number of employees who didn’t know me. So I decided that one way to do this as well as encourage healthy behavior was to invite them to join me for morning walks. It turned out to be a very positive thing with the employees and with the department. In that summer in 1989 on the Vineyard I was telling my friends about how it worked out and I was getting to know the department and they were getting to know me when someone said, ‘Geez, that sounds great, why don’t you organize a walk up here?’ So I decided I would.

How has the race changed over the years?

First, we’ve gotten a lot bigger. We have professional runners show up, because now it’s a registered event, and it has drawn the attention of people all over the Island. So what started out as a fun and sort of spontaneous thing has become an institution on the Island with the people who live here year-round along with people who are summer visitors. Because it’s in collaboration with the hospital, I think people feel very good about the race because it does a lot of good and we have a lot of fun. The race path is also beautiful going up on East Chop Drive. It really is a fun social event that people enjoy. We also have a kiddy run and people look forward to that with equal enthusiasm, as the one for adults.

Who typically runs in this 5K?

We’re trying to attract everyone. Very young people because we want them to establish health habits that they will use for life: not only will they stay healthier and live longer, but the expenditure on health care costs will be less, and this will help us as a country because so much of what we spend our dollars on is preventable. Health is something that applies to everyone: it’s never too late for someone to begin healthy habits, and by that I mean not only regular exercise but proper diet and regular medical checkups once a year. In essence what we’re trying to do is influence the healthy behavior of the American population. It will have great benefits in improving health, reducing costs, reducing pressure on the system and people can have fun while doing it.

Can you speak to the current state of the U.S health care system? How has it changed since you were Secretary of Health?

Health is complex and touches everything. First of all, the U.S as a system has many strengths, but it also has some very significant deficiencies. The strength comes in our investment in biomedical research. Because of what we have done over the decades, investing dollars to support research, we have had more Nobel prizes awarded in physiology and medicine to American scientists than the rest of the world combined throughout the 20th century. We have many advances as a result of that. One example is the current state of treatment for HIV/Aids. When I went to Washington, D.C., in 1989, we had no drugs that we knew to be effective against this new epidemic.

We have a very strong health and education system, training doctors, nurses, dentists, and others in the health professions. People from all over the world come to the U.S. for the training they can recieve here. In spite of those advantages, we’re not the healthiest nation on earth. One of [the reasons] is the health behavior of our population. We’ve become too sedentary. We’ve become obese, with the diets that we have. We’ve not taken full advantage of vaccines that we’ve developed against various conditions, so those are the things that we’re trying to change. But the health system is too expensive, we know it can be more efficient, so by working to make it more efficient, which is part of the health reform legislation, and improving the health behavior of our citizens, we can not only improve the health of our citizens, but we can help to reduce health care costs, which are taking too large a percentage of the gross national product.

What habits do you advocate to promote long-term health?

First of all, regular exercise. It can be walking, running, swimming, gymnastics, the important thing is being active. Secondly, having a proper diet and a balance of foods. Thirdly, avoiding those things that we know damage health such as tobacco use or illicit drugs.

How do you think the current administration is addressing issues such as obesity?

I would say they’ve done a fair job from the beginning, but it can be much more vigorous. Through a strong element of public education that is needed, it’s not a one time effort, it’s something that has to be continuous, this needs to be a vigorous effort by our public health leaders both in Washington and our state health officials, as well as our health professionals — our doctors, our nurses, our pharmacists, and others. That’s why I say health is everybody’s business: it’s not simply as easy as pinpointing it at one place. It requires leadership at all these levels.

What is involved in your daily routine to that keeps you healthy?

I walk every morning. One of the advantages of walking is I don’t need equipment, If you’re a tennis player of a golfer, you need to have equipment, but walking you can do anytime and almost any place whether you’re traveling or at home. I always try to plan my diet, and certainly you can have a diet that’s healthy but also one that’s enjoyable too. It doesn’t mean depriving yourself of things that are very satisfying, but it means eating in moderation and eating a balanced diet, not only things such as seafood and lean meats, but also fruits and vegetables, ample water and other fluids.

So no Backdoor Donuts every night after dinner?

(laughter) I would not recommend that, no.

At your alma mater, Morehouse College, you played trumpet and were a member of the Morehouse Glee club. As a music lover, what do you listen to on your walks to help motivate you?

Oh, (more laughter). Unfortunately my trumpet playing days are over. What I like to do when I’m walking is listen to the news. I’m a big fan of National Public Radio. I like learning what’s happening in the world. I also love nature. I watch the birds, look at flowers. I don’t enjoy using a treadmill. I enjoy getting outside and seeing what the world is like.

Sullivan 5K Run/Walk, Saturday, August 24, 9 am. Registration from 7:30 to 8:30 am in Washington Park.