- The Washington Times - Monday, October 17, 2005

Suburban sprawl, an abundance of restaurants and a lack of access to healthy foods for some populations make living in the Washington area a challenge if one wants to remain at a healthy weight.

That’s the latest analysis from the Trust for America’s Health, a Washington-based nonprofit advocacy group. The group’s 2005 report — based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — says that people in the District and 49 of 50 states (Oregon is the exception) are fatter this year than they were last.

Mississippi was the fattest state in the nation, followed by Alabama. Colorado and Massachusetts were the healthiest. Virginia had the 22nd-highest rate of obesity in the country, Maryland the 29th. The District was ranked 35th.

The standings for the District, Maryland and Virginia aren’t bad but could be a lot better, says Michael Earls, a co-author of the report, titled “F Is for Fat: How Obesity Policies Are Failing in America.”

“To put it in perspective, relative to other states, the capital region is doing better,” Mr. Earls says, “but collectively, all the states have a lot of work to do.”

Some 119 million Americans — about 65 percent of the population — are overweight or obese, according to the CDC. A person is considered overweight if he or she weighs 20 percent more than his or her ideal weight, a person is obese if his or her weight is 30 percent more than his or her ideal weight. The cost of obesity and its associated health risks adds up to more than $117 billion, says the Trust for America’s Health.

Mr. Earls says the District is among 41 states with an adult obesity rate of more than 20 percent. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has set a goal of reducing the adult obesity level to less than 15 percent in every state by 2010.

Every state has an adult obesity level of more than 16 percent, Mr. Earls says. Additionally, 16 percent of active-duty military personnel are obese, the report states.

Despite growing suburban sprawl, the Washington area gets high marks for the opportunities to walk rather than drive, which helps some residents fit exercise into their day, Mr. Earls says. In fact, legislation recently was introduced in Maryland that would give residents a $100 tax deduction for walking or biking to work.

Among the bad news: Fresh, nutritious food is still hard to get in lower-income neighborhoods.

“Food access is a central issue in inner-city areas,” Mr. Earls says. “The food pyramid is all well and good, but not if the options are not there. Sometimes it is cheaper to eat fast food than to go to the supermarket.”

Mr. Earls commends state-sponsored programs in the District and Maryland that have helped low-income residents gain access to produce at farmers markets.

Access to education, health care and exercise also can help break the cycle of obesity and lessen the risk of diseases such as hypertension and diabetes for the area’s low-income residents, says Robert Lee Spector, executive director of Mobile Medical Care, a Montgomery County nonprofit organization that brings medical care to about 5,000 people annually in low-income neighborhoods.

“Correcting obesity is not limited to one economic group,” Mr. Spector says. “Each group has its own barriers. But more than half the people we see suffer from long-term, chronic issues that are exacerbated by being overweight.”

In addition to providing educational materials and nutritional advice to its clients, Mobile Medical Care recently began a pilot program to sign up visitors for a pass to use county recreation facilities.

Mobile Medical Care visitors at the Long Branch Community Center in Silver Spring are offered free use of the center’s pool, fitness room and exercise classes.

“This is an example of breaking down the economic, social and geographical barriers to exercise,” Mr. Spector says. “It is similar to if you write a prescription and it is not filled, then what is the point? This program makes exercise available, accessible and manageable.”

Dr. Matthew Mintz, an internal medicine specialist at George Washington University Hospital, says excess weight cuts across all socioeconomic levels in the Washington area.

“There are opportunities to walk in the city, but so many people only work here and don’t live here,” Dr. Mintz says. “So they drive to work and don’t walk in D.C. The other thing is, we are a very rushed community. People are working hard, and a lot of them don’t have time for exercise.”

He says the abundance of restaurants here also makes keeping trim more difficult. He points out that the proliferation of Starbucks outlets alone poses a challenge for many.

“Starbucks is almost insidious here,” Dr. Mintz says, counting off six or seven within steps of his workplace. “There are no calories in coffee, but when you get one of those mocha-latte things, it can get dangerous to your diet.”

Meanwhile, in a Men’s Fitness magazine ranking of the 25 fittest cities, the District placed 23rd. The magazine says Washington is a place heavy on the drinking and light on the physical activity.

The magazine — looking at Census, CDC and other data — says the District lagged behind other cities in sports participation. D.C. residents participate in sports about 15 percent less than the national average. Just 3 out of 10 residents get enough exercise to ward off health problems.

Alcohol consumption here also is high, about 3.5 gallons per resident annually. That places the District behind only Las Vegas, the Men’s Fitness editors say.



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