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The Obesity Epidemic – A Spotlight On The Issue

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(AP Photo/Patrick Sison)
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“Yes, I’ll have another helping of those pancakes.”  This was a fairly typical response my training partner and I would give to the waitress at the College Education Restaurant in Mishawaka quite a few years ago. We had a huge appetite as the result of long “high intensity” training runs.  My huge appetite continued until my late thirties when I was involved in a debilitating motor vehicle accident.  My lengthy rehabilitation was mirrored by a sedentary lifestyle.  Additionally my doctor stressed the importance of not trying to run due to the severe trauma to my knee and the three destroyed tendons.  Eventually my weight began to climb, leading to a state of obesity for the first time in my life.

 

Yes, my Body Mass Index was over 30%, the range indicated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a 2004 report (CDC).  I developed terrible eating habits when I could run and when I was younger.  Unfortunately the weight accumulates now.  So I, like many Americans today, began to suffer from this malady. Currently, obesity is an epidemic in the United States with over 30% of the adult population in this category.  Indiana for example rates 7th in the nation followed by Michigan at 8th.  

One of the main reasons that the obesity level is now very much out of control in the United States has to do with the built environment.  Poor eating habits are also responsible, and so are some illnesses like diabetes because of the effects of medicines.  Americans in large numbers have changed their living dynamics over the last 40-50 years.  They have abandoned older neighborhoods close to the city in favor of the “suburbs.  The new urban developments, which promised a panacea of personal bliss, actually become one of the largest contributors to obesity.  For example, as cars and gasoline became more affordable, families began to have more than one car.  And as car ownership increased public transportation systems deteriorated.  Longer commutes to work and shopping reduced time available for families or personal endeavors like exercise.  This caused increased individual stress and low motivation.  Furthermore, daily physical activity [(for example walking to the market)] became less common partly due to the physical layout of the new urban environments.  The lack of grid-like neighborhoods promoted isolation.  All of these factors created a perfect storm causing higher percentages of overweight and obese individuals in the US.  

To put it bluntly, people who are obese, compared to those with a normal or healthy weight, are at increased risk for many serious diseases and health conditions, including the following: 

high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, gallbladder problems, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, poor quality of life, clinical depression, anxiety, and other disorders, body pain and difficulty with basic physical functions.  

So what do we do about the problem?   Research shows that the built environment can be changed to improve population health. It is important to provide wide pedestrian sidewalks, and construct networks of non-motorized bicycle lanes in harmony with limited use auto routes.  Safety is the key to insure separation between pedestrian/non-motorized and motorized routes.  Of equal importance is to construct safe well-lit neighborhoods with access to attractive green spaces and parks. If possible, create employment opportunities across and within cities and towns available to residents which would reduce commuting time.  Homes and educational facilities should be located away from high-traffic routes. If these actions are embraced the following outcomes would be reduced: adult and childhood and obesity, social isolation, unhealthy diets, and physical inactivity.  The formula is simple but funding, policy, and legislation will be needed in order to effect the changes necessary to save our people from this epidemic.

Kirby Dipert lives in Mishawaka and is a student at IU South Bend.