photo of couple on walking trail

New School of Public Health dean on a mission to improve public health in Texas

April 2, 2015

In his office at the Texas A&M School of Public Health, Dean Jay Maddock has a small horse-shaped figure that was given to him by a woman who created thousands of miles of walking trails on Jeju, an island off the southern coast of Korea.

Jay Maddock, Ph.D.

Jay Maddock, Ph.D.

Maddock proudly keeps this figure as a symbol of the positive impact just one person can have.

The potential to have such a major impact on people’s lives is what prompted Maddock, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology, to pursue a career in public health.

“Public health can make a real difference in people’s lives,” he says.

Maddock is passionate about all aspects of public health, but the area he is particularly passionate about is exercise. He has been interested in promoting exercise ever since he was in graduate school and noticed he was putting on weight as a the result of a sedentary academic lifestyle.

“We have engineered physical activity out of our daily lives and made it very easy to do very little,” he says. “We really need to rethink our environment.”

Maddock, who was recently elected president of the American Academy of Health Behavior, has spent the past 15 years working on how we can put physical activity back into our daily lives. While he was director of public health at the University of Hawaii, he co-authored the state Physical Activity and Nutrition Plan and was involved in implementing a variety of initiatives that helped the state become recognized as the healthiest in the country.

Among these were initiatives to offer more recess and physical education in the schools, develop safer and more walkable communities, and increase access to fruits and vegetables.

One simple idea Maddock says can work is “walking school buses,” where parents walk their children to school and pick up more parents and children along the way.

“Twenty to 30 years ago, every kid walked and biked to school. Today none of them do,” Maddock says. “Children only need one hour of exercise a day. If they walk 15 minutes each way to school, that’s half of it.”

Another idea is “complete streets,” where every new street that is built has to accommodate cyclists, pedestrians and motor vehicles.

Maddock says even seemingly minor things such as zoning codes can have a major impact on public health. He is an advocate of communities that have housing and retail together, which are commonly referred to as “walkable communities.”

“Downtown Bryan is a great example of a walkable community,” Maddock says. “We need more places like that. People want to live in these communities.”

Maddock notes that walkable communities are not just good for public health, but also good economic policy.

“Getting people out of their cars and on foot is great for the economy,” he says.

Maddock says the key to developing walkable communities is working with community leaders, developers and local planning boards.

“Walkable communities look different everywhere, but the ideas and principles behind them are the same,” he says.

Maddock says developing community coalitions is also a key to improving public health, since social factors tend to influence a lot of our behaviors. While he was in Hawaii, he helped build a coalition in Kauai that was recently named one of the best coalitions in America for increasing physical activity and improving nutrition.

Maddock wants to use his new position as dean to help bring similar programs to Texas, which currently ranks 31st among the 50 states when it comes to public health.

“After 15 years in Hawaii, I felt I had pretty much done what I could do there,” he says. “I was looking for a new challenge. I want to make Texas a better place for everyone.”

If history is any guide, he is likely to succeed.

— Ellen Davis