An event held recently in Colorado should be of particular interest here in the heart of Central Appalachia.
Last week, the National Press Foundation hosted 16 journalists from around the country, including a representative of The Floyd County Times, for a four-day conference about obesity, including its causes, problems and potential solutions. The conference included presentations from some of the nation’s foremost experts on the condition.
While the information provided was voluminous, much of the root cause for the rise in obesity rates can be boiled down to two things: As a society, we’re eating far too many calories, and we’re getting far too little exercise.
And while obesity is a nationwide problem, it is particularly dire in Appalachia. In 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied obesity rates in every county in the United States and found the highest rates in Appalachia and the South. In Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee, 81 percent of counties had obesity rates higher than 30.9 percent.
In Floyd County, that percentage of residents who are considered obese is 37 percent. Note that this particular statistic does not include people who are a few pounds overweight, but those who are obese, meaning they have a body-mass index of 30 or higher. If you add in the people who have packed on extra pounds but haven’t yet crossed that magic figure, the number would likely double.
The obvious question that comes to mind is, “Why?” Perhaps it could be that 41 percent of people over age 20 report engaging in no leisure time physical activity, nearly twice the national rate. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that 66 percent of restaurants in the county exclusively serve high-fat, low-nutrition fast food, compared to a nationwide average of 27 percent. Maybe the combination of a poverty rate 68.75 percent higher than the national average with the fact that the cheapest foods typically have the most calories and fat plays a role. In all likelihood, all of the above, plus some additional factors, are to blame.
What is known is that the problem is taking a severe toll. A baby born in Floyd County today can expect to live a shorter life than its parents. Over the past 10 years, Floyd County has had the 10th highest drop in male life expectancy, among all counties in the country. Each year, county residents die having missed out on a combined 5,636 years of potential life. And in March, we learned that Floyd County ranks dead last among 120 counties in Kentucky, which itself is one of the least healthy states in the nation.
On the bright side, it appears that the avalanche of bad health news is finally getting some attention, and local officials and health care organizations are showing new resolve to get Floyd County on the path to better health.
But it is going to take more than just government and medicine to solve the problem. Of course, those who are overweight or obese need to make a commitment to better their health. However, schools and businesses can aid in the effort by giving students and employees incentives and opportunities to live healthier. After all, schools and businesses already have incentive to make such allowances, because studies show that students do better on standardized tests and employees are more productive when they are in better physical health.
Floyd County and the rest of Appalachia do not have to allow health problems to conquer us, as they seem poised to do if we do not act upon them. We can become a healthier community, and we will live happier lives as a result.
— The Floyd County Times