- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 13, 2005

WINDBER, Pa. (AP) — When Ray Crawford walks down the hallway of his school, the beefy, 240-pound sophomore says he doesn’t stand out much. Many of his classmates are heavy, too.

“We go to the Eat ‘n Park to meet and chill; maybe don’t eat the right things,” he said, referring to a regional chain restaurant famous for its smiley-faced cookies. “There’s not much else to do.”

Here in his small hometown in the mountains of western Pennsylvania and in other rural communities like it, many health officials say the tide of obesity is rising faster than anywhere else.

And new research appears to back them up, dispelling a long-held belief that in farm communities and other rural towns, heavy chores, wide expanses of land and fresh air make leaner, stronger bodies.

“Whatever the situation was, rural areas are leading the way now … they’re ahead of the curve,” said Michael Meit, director of the University of Pittsburgh Center for Rural Health Practice.

The Center for Rural Pennsylvania released a study recently that used state health figures to compare the body-mass index of seventh-graders in urban and rural communities — more than 25,000 students in all.

About 16 percent of urban students qualified as obese, according to the study, which is in line with the national average for youths ages 6 to 19. In rural school districts, however, 20 percent were considered obese.

More alarmingly, researchers found that during the years of the survey, between 1999 and 2001, the number of obese students in rural school districts rose about 5 percent, more than twice the rate of their urban counterparts.

The same trends are being reported from New Mexico to Michigan to West Virginia.

Mostly rural states have done studies that don’t distinguish between urban and rural children, but they have found the incidence of childhood obesity to be far greater than the national average.

More than a quarter of all fifth-graders in West Virginia are obese, where two-thirds of the population is rural. One in four public schoolchildren in Arkansas are obese.

“It is accelerating,” said Dr. Darrell Ellsworth, director of cardiovascular disease research at the Windber Research Institute.

Dr. Ellsworth is trying to start a childhood-obesity clinic to stave off a wave of diabetes and heart disease he believes will overwhelm this region if nothing is done.

The only other place where researchers are finding obesity rates similar to rural America is in the poorest, most troubled urban neighborhoods, suggesting that poverty may be the overriding cause.

In Tioga County in northeast Pennsylvania, where farming has declined and poverty has risen to about 20 percent, one in 10 kindergartners were found to be obese in 2001-2002. That number doubled for eighth-graders.

“We’ve seen it sneaking up on us. We’ve known it’s a problem, and now it’s reaching epidemic proportions,” said Anne Loudenslager, who heads the Tioga County Partnership for Community Health. “We are using a good portion of our limited resources to stop this.”

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