Cleveland Project: Public health gets no more ambitious than this

Cleveland’s newest rock-star doctor has some new ideas on fighting obesity and improving health that are unconventional, innovative — and a bit weird. Dr. James Levine calls his ideas “The Cleveland Project,” and they add up to an ambitious and far-reaching public health plan.

Cleveland’s newest rock-star doctor has some ideas on fighting obesity and improving the city’s health that are unconventional, innovative — and a bit weird.

Dr. James Levine calls his ideas The Cleveland Project, and they add up to an ambitious and far-reaching public health plan, the likes of which Northeast Ohio probably has never seen.

The project revolves around a simple question with potentially huge implications: “If you bring health to a city, does [the city’s] viability improve?” asked Levine, a former Mayo Clinic doctor who’ll begin Nov. 1 as chief of endocrinology at University Hospitals Case Medical Center and Case Western Reserve University.

That is, if a city’s residents get healthier, will the city’s other quality-of-life measures — from finances to air quality to psychological health to housing prices — improve along with them? “That’s an incredibly interesting idea,” said Levine. “If it’s right, what’s very important is that it puts health right as the central agenda [item] of cities.”

And what better place than Cleveland to test Levine’s hypothesis? Of course, to test it, Clevelanders would have to put down their beer and pierogies and, you know, get healthy.

Not surprisingly, Levine has some ideas on how that might happen — but he also wants local residents to e-mail him with their ideas at [email protected]. “For the community, by the community, is what this is all about,” he said. “It’s not just about showing up in Cleveland and starting something.”

Early plans call for piloting what Levine calls “activity streets,” on which a community health representative engages neighbors in an exercise program as simple as group walks or other activities the group likes. Organizers of The Cleveland Project would provide community organizers with training, support, technology and other tools to help engage their neighbors, Levine said.

Plenty of other unconventional plans could follow. Could it work? Who knows?

Levine acknowledges that, with such a large-scale project and untested concept, success could be difficult. “Perhaps I’m wrong and crazy, and perhaps it’s a terrible mistake, but if you’re going to make a mistake for people’s health, then it’s a good mistake to make,” he said.

The idea is try a bunch of ideas at the same time, keep what works and learn from what doesn’t, he said.

And who will pay for all of this? Levine points to the always-popular concept of “partnerships,” hoping that businesses will realize the value of healthy workers and pony up some cash for the project.

Levine made his name at the renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where his research focused on non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) — basically anything people do besides exercise to burn calories, like walking around the office or mowing the lawn. He’s credited with being one of the pioneers of the treadmill desk and as author of a book called “Move a Little, Lose a Lot” about the virtues of NEAT.

A whirlwind of energy during a 20-minute phone interview, Levine was equally philosophical (“We’re all artists, but all of us don’t realize it now”) and wistful. In one breath, he questioned the wisdom of leaving the friendly confines of Mayo for Cleveland (“Why on earth would I leap off this cliff?”) while discussing the “honor” (a word he used repeatedly) of leading something as potentially big as The Cleveland Project.

“On one hand, I’m probably crazy to be doing this, but on the other, it’s such an honor to try to help people get healthy, so at least I want to try,” he said.

Godspeed, Dr. Levine. The future of Cleveland’s waistlines and success may depend — at least a little — on you.