Rob St. Mary was already traveling light when he moved to Colorado in March. He sold many of his belongings, including his car, packed his cats and a U-Haul, and set out from Detroit to a job at Aspen Public Radio.
Just a few months into his new life, he is even lighter, having shed nearly 25 pounds of Michigan fat.
He isn’t dieting or working out any more than he did in Michigan. But he’s found there’s a reason that Michigan is one of the nation’s fattest states and Colorado is the nation’s slimmest.
"It’s the lifestyle,” he said. “(Michigan) is so tied to the car culture, plus it’s gray all winter long. Here, it snows, but then the sun comes out again, and you go outside.”
St. Mary changed more than his address when he moved. He takes advantage of the admittedly unique amenities of Aspen, a wealthy town of 6,000 year-round residents that swells to 20,000 in winter and summer. He rides a bus to work and around town, or does most of his errands on foot. He has a membership in a bike-share network. Just that level of simple exercise integrated into the fabric of everyday life was enough to chip away the pounds.
But even in less-affluent parts of Colorado, a go-out-and-play mindset prevails. Cherie Talbert, a Michigan State graduate who moved to Denver from Grand Rapids eight years ago, said the city’s infrastructure, as well as its 300 days of sunshine a year, encourages outdoor activity.
“The housing is more expensive and you don’t have as much room indoors, but we have huge parks, rec centers, bike trails,” she said. “My husband rides everywhere.”
Why Michigan is obese – why any person or population is obese – isn’t a mystery. We consume far more calories than we burn with activity. But why Michigan is so fat, top-10 in the nation fat, is harder to unpack. Many factors contribute to obesity, including thorny ones like culture and poverty. And even in skinny Colorado, residents are getting fatter. The poor in Colorado, as well as Hispanic adults, have obesity levels at or near the national level, said Susan Motika, of the Prevention Services Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
And Coloradans who live away from its recreation-mad cities, particularly in the rural eastern parts of the state, have the same problem. Seven of the state’s counties track with the nation’s obesity average.
What’s more worrisome, Motika says, is the trend over time. Nearly one-third of Americans are not just overweight, but obese, defined as a body mass index of 30 or above. In Colorado, the percentage more than doubled over 16 years, from 10.3 to 21.4 percent.
Motika and others can point to many factors leading to this growing national spare tire, including but not limited to sprawl (which puts people in cars for longer periods), the explosion in fast-food restaurants, a decline in home cooking and portion creep. And so the war on obesity takes place on many fronts.
A mitten strategy
In Michigan, Dawn Rodman runs the state’s “Health and Wellness 4x4 Plan,” a public awareness campaign intended to slim down the state through four active strategies – healthy diet, exercise, annual physicals and avoiding tobacco – while educating residents on four measures of health – body mass index, blood pressure, cholesterol level and blood glucose. And, Rodman says, there is good news to report:
According to the 2012 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a telephone survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Michigan’s obesity rate fell slightly this year, from 31.3 percent of residents being reported obese last year to 31.1 percent obese this year. That was enough to change the state’s national ranking, from fifth fattest to 10th.
Rodman is aware this is hardly cause for celebration, especially when one considers that another 34.6 percent of Michigan residents are considered overweight, with BMIs between 25 and 29.9. That means two-thirds of state residents weigh more than they should. And again, there are many reasons.
“It’s the environments in which we live,” Rodman said. “Are there opportunities to get outside and feel safe to exercise? It’s ‘food deserts’ – if you don’t have a car, you need a grocery within walking or bus distance. It’s where people work. The emphasis (at work) is to do more with less.” If, say, you’re working so hard that even a 30-minute lunch hour stroll is frowned upon, that’s going to be reflected in the number on the scale, too.
State and local governments, health-care institutions and corporations intercede where they can. The federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Acts of 2010 is pushing food served in schools in a healthier direction.
Rodman said that SNAP-Ed, the educational arm of the federal food-stamp program, tries to spread more health-conscious cooking skills to recipients. The Double Up Food Bucks program allows Bridge card holders to get tokens for twice the amount debited, if spent on fruits and vegetables at Michigan farm markets.
But both women emphasize that the effort to slim down the nation takes place at a very personal level. For all the attention paid to policy changes, from banning extra-large sugary drinks to slimming school lunches, the battle is fought in private in homes, at dinner tables, in grocery stores. Motika said that while policy analysts consider ways to provide more access to sidewalks and bike paths, ultimately the decision to live a more healthy life “has to be voluntary.”
And if Michigan can’t import Colorado’s weather or environment, it can adopt some of its ideas, said St. Mary, the Michigan expat.
“Part of the culture (here) is to take a gym break (at work),” he said. “People say, ‘I’m going to the gym, and I’ll be back in 90 minutes.’ No one would ever do that at any job I worked in Michigan. Maybe it’s part of our shift-worker mentality.”