OGDEN -- U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin likens public health to an interstate highway: As long as everything is going smoothly, nobody notices, but as soon as you hit a pothole, everyone pays attention.
Benjamin was the keynote speaker Tuesday morning at the Ogden Eccles Conference Center during Utah's Public Health Conference. The theme for the conference this year is Embrace the Future, Renew Public Health.
Benjamin said public health is more than educating the community -- it's going directly to where they are and engaging them in healthy lifestyles.
"One of our biggest challenges is lifestyle changes," she said. "We need to bring back the joy of being healthy."
Benjamin praised Utah for being one of the healthiest states in the nation but said there is always more work to be done, and prevention is the key.
"Prevention policies and programs often are cost-effective, reduce health care costs and improve productivity," she said.
"The Affordable Care Act is all about prevention, and we know prevention works, and we know that public health is part of everything we do, because health occurs where we live, learn, work, play and pray."
Benjamin said the key to prevention is to give people tools and stop telling them what they can't do, can't have and can't eat.
"People need to find their own joy. For one person, that might mean running a marathon. Others might just want to be able to fit back into a pair of jeans, or maybe someone wants to be able to sit up and play with their grandkids," she said.
"But we in public health can't just put out a report and expect people to read it. We have to be involved and find ways to engage every person."
Benjamin said that means going to where the people are. For example, she said, too many women refuse to exercise because they don't want to mess up their hairstyle.
"They will say, 'I can't exercise because I don't want to sweat my hair back or get my hair wet,' " she said. "So I went to one of the biggest hair shows in the world. There were 20,000 hairstylists there, and we made them our ambassadors for healthy lifestyles."
Benjamin said that today those hairstylists engage in healthy lifestyle conversations with their clients and ask them if they've had their blood pressure and cholesterol checked, and they talk about various ways to become and stay healthy.
In addition, helping to prevent people from engaging in unhealthy lifestyles is extremely crucial. Immunizations, eating right, avoiding excessive alcohol consumption and not smoking are among some of the most important ways to prevent disease and early death.
"Every day, 1,200 people die from cigarette smoking," she said. "If we can get youth to remain smoke-free until the age of 26, less than 1 percent will ever start smoking."