When I was growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it seemed the pattern was set for the older generations in my west Alabama hometown. Men and women would finish their schooling and go to work, selling insurance, running a small business, raising children or something similar.
As these folks aged, their activity level dropped. Playing sports or getting physical recreation was kid’s stuff. At the same time, they ate and drank too many unhealthy things.
These risky habits caught up to many in their 40s and 50s. For this unfortunate set, their bodies revolted, as it were. A heart attack rocked their worlds.
If they recovered, most turned their lives around, with their doctors’ encouragement, of course. They put aside fried foods. They cut back on sweets. And they started walking every morning to give their hearts a gentle workout.
This cadre of early morning scarred-but-smarter walkers was an inspiration when I was a kid. They had survived a major health scare, and had taken steps to keep on living.
Today’s conventional wisdom offered by countless health professionals, nutritionists, public-policy officials and the like would be for the walkers to make their lifestyle changes before the ride to the ER. Their advice is to stay active and eat healthy over your entire life.
According to U.S. health statistics, that advice is going unheeded. Approximately two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese. Almost 7-in-10 Alabama adults are either overweight or obese, and the problem has grown exponentially over the past 20 years.
In the vast majority of Alabama counties, a sizeable share of residents is physically inactive, according to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So, we’ve got a weight problem and too few are taking the steps — literally — required to restore physical fitness.
It’s not by accident The Star is calling its project on obesity “Our Big Problem.” And, make no mistake, even if you are in tip-top shape and eat a healthy diet, it’s your big problem, as well. Medicine and treatment for those Alabamians with a weight problem will eventually be passed down to everyone.
What to do? Perhaps a good first step would be to attend an Anniston Star-sponsored event on Thursday. It starts at 7 p.m. at the Anniston City Meeting Center. We’ll be screening an installment of HBO’s amazing documentary The Weight of the Nation. Afterward, we’ll open the floor for a discussion on solutions.
In describing best practices for democracies, the Kettering Foundation often employs the phrase “wicked problem.”
David Mathews, a native Alabamian and the president and CEO of the nonprofit Kettering, has written, “Wicked problems are those that take advantage of a diminished sense of community and then further loosen the ties that bind people. Conventional remedies don’t work on these problems. Following business as usual is like treating cancers with the plaster casts more suitable for broken bones. Unlike fractures, our most serious community problems result from multiple factors, more human than technical.”
In other words, Alabama’s obesity problem is not one that will be solved by merely watching a documentary and chatting for an hour. It will require sustained effort and the enlistment of any army to fight this battle, one as dedicated as those early morning walkers back in my hometown.
Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis.