You probably saw the recent headline: "Mississippi’s still fattest but Alabama is closing in."
We love competition in sports like football, but this latest "honor" is not only embarrassing, it is dangerous – and has long-term economic and political consequences. Aging baby boomers will mean a jump in obese Medicare patients. And Alabama is already the leader there, with a national high of 16.3 percent of obese Medicare patients. Of course, Medicare spends from $1,400 to $6,000 more annually on health care for an obese senior than for the non-obese, so our fatness will cost taxpayers millions and millions more dollars.
The study found, in Alabama, more than one-third of all baby boomers are obese. And more discouraging is the fact, in Alabama, more than one-third of all children are already obese or overweight – sixth-highest in the United States. Unfortunately, eight of the 10 states with the highest rates of obese and overweight children are in the South.
So, what is going on? Two-thirds of American adults are obese or overweight, and childhood obesity rates have more than tripled since 1980. What has led to that and, more importantly, what can we do about it?
The basic answers, as any 4-Her may know, is how we eat and how we exercise—or don’t exercise. Although we cherish individual responsibility, it also means there will be political and legislative opportunities to bring about change. Most of us bristle at the idea of government "telling us what to eat," so our first concern should be our own accountability for ourselves and for our families.
Let’s begin at home. You are a role model. If you are fat, you will probably have children who become fat. Since obesity is a new phenomenon, it has less to do with "fat genes" than with how we now live. If you don’t take a daily walk around the neighborhood, your children won’t exercise. If you eat lots of prepared, processed foods, so will your kids. If you don’t eat lots of vegetables and fruits, neither will your children.
The recent studies show rural children are more likely to be overweight or obese than urban children. Children living in rural areas were also found to be less physically active and less likely to participate in after-school sports than their counterparts in urban areas. That undermines our blissful myth of "healthy farm kids" drinking milk and baling hay, doesn’t it?
Unhealthy diet is one culprit in rural obesity. Rural folks often eat a higher fat and calorie diet, and that is partially due to access and availability of healthy foods. There are places in our state without major grocery chains. "Fresh produce" is simply not an option, and people in rural areas often have limited selection and higher cost for fresh fruit and vegetables than urban consumers.
Thanks to the support of Bonnie Plants and Quality Co-ops, the Alabama Junior Master Gardener program is one way 4-H and Extension are addressing that problem. There has been a renewed interest in gardening as a safe and reliable resource for fresh vegetables, and we are at the heart of that demand. And as anyone who has spent a day hunkered over a hoe knows, a hard-working gardener is not going to be an obese gardener.
That lack of exercise also contributes to rural obesity. The popular image of an active rural lifestyle is no longer accurate. Rural residents are less physically active than urban residents. Some possible causes include less access to exercise facilities and fewer school physical education classes. But there is also a cultural phenomenon at work too: we celebrate athletic prowess, but are not as quick to celebrate plain, old physical fitness. For every star athlete, there are a hundred kids who never walk, run or bike.
Again, Alabama 4-H has been working to bring fitness into our kids’ lives. Our Just Move! program teaches youth the importance of exercise and healthy eating. The program has been incorporated into all 4-H programs and activities, and the Just Move! program materials have been adopted by schools, churches and youth groups throughout the state.
Obesity is one of the leading preventable causes of death. It has been connected to everything from heart disease to diabetes. If you are obese, you will die earlier and the quality of your life will be worse than if you are fit and trim. There is much you can do to prevent obesity. Maybe your 4-H club members can show you the way.
Amy Payne Burgess is a 4-H Regional Extension Agent for DeKalb, Marshall and Cherokee Counties.