The Rapidian

Obesity in Grand Rapids

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Written by: Tammy Weeks, Logan Brenk, Afton Seeley, and Christopher Brinks, Frederik Meijer Honors College, Grand Valley State University

For the first time in human history, the number of overweight people rivals the number of underweight people.… While the world’s underfed population has declined slightly since 1980 to 1.1 billion, the number of overweight people has surged to 1.1 billion.”
- Chronic Hunger and Obesity Epidemic; Eroding Global Progress, World Watch Institute.

Obesity in the city of Grand Rapids is a problem on a community-wide scale due to its prevalence in all age groups, classes, and races. This key health issue has also hit the state and region hard.  Over sixty percent of adults in Kent County, for example, are overweight or obese. While near the average among Michigan counties, this is still a startling statistic. Dramatic steps must be taken to reduce obesity rates in Grand Rapids and surrounding areas.

An issue with the term "obesity" is that there are many different approaches to measurement. The most common is the Body Mass Index (BMI). The BMI scale compares a person's weight with their height, and places them in a weight group (underweight, average, overweight, obese) accordingly. While the BMI scale is a useful tool in diagnosing a weight problem, it can often be misleading and inaccurate. It does not measure how much of a person's weight is muscle rather than fat, what kind of diet they have, or the amount of exercise they get. These are key factors in fully understanding the issue and finding solutions for addressing the problem. Statistics for Kent County show that the majority of people do not exercise the suggested amount of time, nor do they consume a healthy level of fruits or vegetables. Those who do not live a healthy lifestyle tend to be heavier and rank higher on the BMI scale.

The causes of obesity are numerous. One factor is genetic inheritance, which is unavoidable.  But most of the issue stems from societal habits. As lives become more hectic, Americans are consuming cheap, readily available foods. These meals happen to be much more processed and filled with sodium and fats than the typical meal. Children are also learning bad nutritional habits at a young age, and they will maintain them as they grow older.

Some may ask whether obesity is a matter of personal choice and responsibility rather than an issue of public interest. These people fail to realize the far reaching affects of the obesity epidemic. Some bear the personal burden of being overweight, but all pay a price. In treating the symptoms of obesity, diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attacks, and strokes, the cost of healthcare for all Americans has skyrocketed. The average cost of health care for obese, overweight, and normal weight Americans based on findings from The Agency of Healthcare Research and Quality has risen 49%, 30%, and 27% respectively.

What is more than the monetary expense of this health crisis is the emotional distress that is brought on by being overweight. In today’s society it is taboo to be overweight or obese, even though the same society can be partly to blame for the weight epidemic. Cheap, unhealthy food is rampant and rather than address the issue of a sedentary lifestyle, our culture has become obsessed with diet pills and miracle cures. Changing a well-reinforced lifestyle is nearly impossible when undertaken alone, and it is this very reason that obesity is a matter of public health rather than private consciousness. With so many in the same situation across the country feeling powerless to change the events set in motion, in must be the collective rather than the individual to take action.

So where do we begin to fight the epidemic if it seems so rampant?  A key to the prevention of obesity lies with the children of Grand Rapids, and for that matter throughout Michigan and the U.S. as a whole.  In response to growing demands for academic achievement, schools throughout Michigan are cutting back recess and physical education in order to meet the required classroom hours.  It is cheaper to maximize the number of hours the students spend in the classroom during school hours than it is to increase the number of school hours in a day.  As a result, recess and physical education classes suffer.  However, the practice of adding more classes at the expense of time for physical activity is actually counterproductive.  Studies have shown that simply adding more hours, which is done in most cases by adding 5 to 10 minutes to the school day, will not produce better test scores.  In fact, according Senator Tom George (R-Kalamazoo), MD, "Students who exercise during the day are more alert, their brains are working better and their test results are better.  So having less physical education results in lower academic performance.”

As of right now, only 40 minutes a day in elementary schools are allowed for physical activity, which includes recess, physical education classes, in room activity, and special events. In Grand Rapids Public Schools, only 30 minutes of physical education class is provided in a week. The rest of the physical activity is most likely at recess, where students may well end up sitting down and not moving.  As of right now, Michigan law does not require any specific amount of time for physical activity.  It only states that schools must provide some physical activity, and activities such as athletic programs count.     

The city of Grand Rapids has made positive strides in the fight against obesity. Grand Rapids Public Schools, with help from Michigan State University and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, have instituted a FIT initiative to curb rising childhood obesity rates. This two-year program strives to make available nutritious food, access to safe and affordable physical activities, and knowledge of behaviors associated with living a healthy lifestyle. One of the looming problems facing the nation as a whole as well as Grand Rapids is that the habits learned at a young age often persist into adulthood.  According to the Surgeon General, about 80% of kids who are overweight by the age of 10 will be overweight by the age of 25.  By taking measures to combat such attitudes at a young age, the city of Grand Rapids is preparing its citizens to stay healthy throughout their lives. 


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