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Project HeRO improves squadron health habits

FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AFNS) -- A new Air Force Health and Readiness Optimization program, or HeRO, seeks to partner with squadrons by using data to help Airmen improve health habits that impact readiness.

HeRO represents a reboot of Air Force Health Promotion efforts. It is designed to target at-risk squadrons using data and evidence-based interventions to minimize work-days lost to preventable illness or injury. It rolled out at 10 sites in 2018, with plans to expand Air Force-wide in 2019.

“We are creating programs to help our local health promotion teams engage at the squadron level,” said Col. Thomas Moore, Air Force Health Promotion Branch chief. “HeRO uses information from annual personal health assessment questionnaires so our teams can identify squadrons showing high rates of negative health behaviors.”

With the Defense Department’s focus on keeping more service members ready and in the fight, preventing work-days lost to preventable illness or injuries is critical.

“We started by examining how these different health behaviors affect the mission,” said Lt. Col. Jennifer Harward, Air Force Health Promotion Branch deputy chief. “If you lose an Airman for a day from a preventable health behavior, or if they are not performing at their best, then that is a real impact on readiness.”

Taking a data-driven and evidence-based approach helps health promotion teams make the case to squadron leadership.

“We use data to get squadron leader buy-in, and from there we can really impact health behaviors,” Moore said. “We can show them their squadron’s tobacco use is higher than the base average, or their people get less sleep than other units across the Air Force, and explain how it may affect mission performance.”

Some of the most concerning data relates to sleep habits. Airmen who get fewer than five hours of sleep each night are considered at high risk of having sleep deprivation affect performance.

“The science-focused sleep information was eye-opening for everyone,” said Shane Warye, Health Promotions chief at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. “Sleep deprivation can be self-induced, from playing video games or extensive screen time, or it can be caused by variable shifts that prevent consistent sleep patterns.”

No matter the cause, sleep deprivation has the potential to affect mission performance.

“Our interventions educate Airmen on the benefits of sleep and teach strategies to improve sleep habits,” said Warye. “Earning leadership’s buy-in and utilizing creative challenges leverages social support within squadrons to strengthen habits.”

Project HeRO gives health promotion offices standard, evidence-based strategies and interventions, and provides a framework for implementing them successfully. As Warye noted, most Airmen have heard many of the messages on nutrition, fitness and tobacco before. The critical step is getting them to act on them.

“We want to be the spark that ignites a unit to improve their habits and overall readiness,” Warye said. “The data driven approach convinces the commanders, chiefs, first sergeants and frontline supervisors, and they fan the flame to drive the message home and impact Airmen’s health and readiness.”

“We can educate and inform Airmen all day,” Moore said. “But engagement from squadron leadership and influencers is more likely to motivate Airmen to really change their habits and get healthier.”

Harward pointed out that many of these messages are not new to Airmen. Using squadron leadership as messengers is more likely to motivate Airmen to change their health habits.

“When health promotion teams work together with commanders, they develop synergy to improve mission success,” Harward said. “When you give people concrete steps to change their behavior and get their leadership and their influencers involved, it makes a real difference in maximizing Airmen’s effectiveness.”

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