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Obesity for Web edition

Editor's Note: If you are battling the bulge, you're not alone. West Virginia is the fattest state in the nation. In the first part of a four-day series, today's article examines what state government is doing about obesity as a health epidemic.

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

CHARLESTON -- Uncle Sam wants you -- to be a little more buff.

But it's not your unsightly cellulite that has prompted the state to gear up for Healthy People 2010, a multi-agency attack on bad eating habits and sedentary lifestyles.

It's your health.

"Our obesity rates are a significant reason why many West Virginians die prematurely," said Dr. Henry Taylor, state commissioner of the Bureau for Public Health.

Consequently, Healthy People's key objective is to reduce the percentage of West Virginians who are obese.

Taylor said one-fourth of West Virginians are currently obese, or 20 percent or more above their ideal weight. He is particularly concerned about the increasing percentage of children in that category.

"It seems clear to many of us that the most logical place to turn around these disastrous trends is in our schools," Taylor said in a recent statement.

School-based programs are a key part of Healthy People 2010 as a result. Some of them are funded through the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has made several recommendations for the state program.

"We're focusing our policies on environment so that it's easier for people to behave the way that you want," said Jessica Wright, director of the bureau's Chronic Disease Section.

In schools, that environment may include features such as daily recess for elementary children, daily physical education classes for all grade levels and healthy items in vending machines.

The program, for which implementation strategies are due out late this month, also includes the community and workplaces.

At the community level, especially in rural areas, Wright said public exercise areas such as flat walking paths may be an important component.

For businesses, in contrast, a fitness-friendly environment may include workplace showers to facilitate lunch-time workouts and low-fat food for business functions.

Wright said the state may encourage such initiatives through business tax credits and assistance in lowering insurance premiums.

Such financial issues are another reason government is interested in the obesity issue.

"It (widespread obesity) affects everything that we do," Wright said.

"It affects us in terms of health-care costs, chronic diseases, Medicare, Medicaid. It costs all of us in the long run."

Such costs may inhibit businesses from locating here, as opposed to other states, for example.

Karen Wheeler, nutrition coordinator for the state bureau's Cardiovascular Health Program, said the state will also be pushing better nutrition as part of the overall Healthy People plan.

One Healthy People objective is for 35 percent of adults age 18 or older to eat at least five servings of vegetables or fruits each day, for instance.

In September, the state will sponsor a Five-A-Day Week to promote the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food pyramid recommendations for fruit and vegetable servings.

Both Wright and Wheeler said changing West Virginian's lifestyles for the healthier won't be easy, but noted this state has one key advantage in making a government-sponsored health initiative work.

"Because we have a small population, the networks are easier to identify," Wright said. "We can, hopefully, get on the same page quicker."

Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1447 or by e-mail at nedinger@exponent-telegram.com.

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