Amy Eyler’s commitment to enhancing public health in St. Louis and across the country is unwavering.
As an associate professor for Washington University in St. Louis’ Brown School, Amy conducts research to advance the policies related to physical activity and obesity, as well as broader issues in public health. She also serves as the deputy director for the Prevention Research Center in St. Louis and co-directs the Policies for Action Child Health Weight Hub, a project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to identify policies, laws, and regulations to build a culture of health, focusing on the implementation of nutrition and physical activity policies. Amy also writes for academic journals, presents nationally and will also be speaking at our inaugural HORIZON St. Louis event on April 3 focused on our collective health and wellness.
We recently caught up with Amy to talk about the upcoming presentation, public health and more.
Your research, work and leadership in public health is extensive. A decade from now, what bold public health achievements do you hope we’re talking about as a society?
What I really hope is that all of the important research we’re doing and the data and evidence it reveals is making a broad impact. We’re really good at executing research studies and establishing new metrics and measures, but so many of these efforts take a long time to translate into practice. We need to get better at that in every way – pushing research to practice so that it can advance our collective health and change lives.
For example, I’m a physical activity researcher and we have a great deal of evidence that makes it quite clear what schools should do to promote physical activity with their students. It’s information that’s right there for people to use, but only some schools adopt it. Until it becomes commonplace, we’re really muting the potential of that research. So, a decade from now, I hope it’s standard for schools and communities to leverage this research. That’s how we’ll improve our collective health, our children’s lives and our future.
Can you talk about your work with the Prevention Research Center in St. Louis – what’s your proudest accomplishment stemming from that work?
Absolutely, and there are things I can point to nationally and specific to St. Louis. On the national level, for 10 years I led the organization’s Physical Activity Policy Research Network (PAPRN) which was a national collaborative of practitioners and researchers that conducted studies, developed policy briefs, presentations and papers that made real advances in this area of research. I’m remarkably proud of the team’s work and impact.
The Prevention Research Center in St. Louis also conducted projects to help establish numerous trails for biking, walking, running, enjoying nature across rural Missouri. We helped build community support for these trails, helped make them a reality, and most all of them are still in use today.
Public health is a complex topic at the nexus of prevention, policy, physical activity and much more. How do you educate people in actionable ways about something so complex?
The key piece is tailoring your message to your specific audience to ensure it’s clearly understood. For example, I helped shape a report published by the National Academies of Medicine titled Educating the Student Body. It was a thorough piece with actionable ways for schools to enhance physical activity opportunities for students throughout the day.
As an academic report, that information can reach certain people. But, we wanted to ensure it was fully leveraged by any and all interested. So, we created bulleted summaries of our finding that empowered people to talk about the topic and influence change. The team created a companion video and infographic to communicate with a non-researcher audience. We wanted to empower parents, students, teachers all to be able to digest our research and then have a voice to recommend positive change.
We all know childhood obesity has risen significantly over recent decades. What opportunities are out there for us to take real action to reverse this trend in the years ahead?
We have to change the policies to support behaviors and environments that are conducive to nutrition, physical activity and mental health for children. We have to make sure people see the short- and long-term impacts of these changes to encourage action.
For example, just mandating physical education for all schools and grade levels and ensuring it meets quality standards, that seems so simple but it’s not happening. It’s not happening equitably across the city of St. Louis or the country and we need to change that. Policy change can lead to behavior change – those are critical opportunities we have to advance.
Are there any public health challenges or opportunities specific to St. Louis you’d like to increase awareness around?
A colleague of mine at the Brown School, Jason Purnell, created a report called, For the Sake of All, that looked at health outcome data by St. Louis-area zip codes. The differences were staggering and beyond what I expected. We’re talking almost 20-year differences in life expectancy based on where you live and grow up. That needs to change. We need to take action to make health and wellness opportunities equitable for all who live in our region. That moves beyond just public health to issues with access to mental health, healthcare, education, housing, employment, nutrition, etc.
The first step is increasing awareness. Already, For the Sake of All has led to recommendations for improvement and advances in the right direction. For example, healthcare access is expanding into high schools in areas of high need. These school-based health clinics are providing essential services for young people in our community. That’s a great step and we need to take many more.
Your Twitter bio says you’re a runner. What’s the best place to log a few miles in the St. Louis region?
Forest Park is an amazing place. I work near it and am lucky to be able to enjoy it during my workdays. I live in West St. Louis County and along with the County Parks and Recreation Department, Great Rivers Greenway has done a wonderful job developing trails throughout the County. I love running their trail system and through the woods in general. I call them my “happy” runs. There’s a newer trail named Bluff View that overlooks the Meramec River and connects to other trails leading to Castlewood State Park – that’s my favorite trail right now.