Chattanooga well-being: Getting fit is about more than what we eat

Chattanooga well-being: Getting fit is about more than what we eat

April 18th, 2014 in Opinion Times

Chattanooga has been ranked in the bottom 11 on a list of healthy (or in our case unhealthy) communities.

USA Today/24-7 Wall Street took that data and made another analysis factoring in income, poverty and educational attainment.

The result? Suddenly Chattanooga -- the town trying to bill itself as an outdoor mecca and entrepreneurial hub -- finds itself ranked eighth worst in the nation.

We now can have a new "worst of the worst" headline, and it's all of us. Inclusive.

Almost 30 percent of us in Chattanooga and the city's Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia suburbs are obese. Fewer than half of us exercise. Only 58.7 percent of us eat produce (that's real food as opposed to processed food) frequently. One in four of us still smokes. Almost 55 percent of us report daily stress. And 18 percent of us are uninsured. All of these numbers come from the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index data from 2012 and 2013.

Actually, this shouldn't be such a shocker. After all, this is the town that gave the world Coca-Cola in a bottle. And it's the town that made R.C. Cola and a MoonPie a luncheon staple.

Chattanooga also is just a couple of skips from Collegedale, where Little Debbie Snack Cakes are made by the truck and train car load. Every Sunday after church, hundreds of Chattanoogans drove to Collegedale to buy discount Little Debbies in bulk. Our mothers stuffed the snack cakes into our school lunchboxes, and sometimes we snagged them for an easy breakfast-on-the-run.

This also is the town that once had such terrible pollution that outdoor play was not really much fun -- especially in the summer. That pollution is gone now, but old habits die hard. So, apparently, do we, with high rates of heart, cancer and stroke deaths.

The city's median household income of $43,475 (nearly $8,000 lower than the national median household income of $51,371) works as much against its residents as it works for our employers. Less money, less affordable health care and more poor health make our stress levels higher.

The survey that made up part of the analysis found that nearly 80 percent of respondents living here said they had lacked the energy to accomplish what they needed to do the day before. This was worse than all but two other metro areas analyzed. And nearly 31 percent of respondents said they had health problems that hindered their ability to participate in age-appropriate activities.

But it's not just us. Much of the Southeast fares poorly on these lists, too.

Tennessee, at No. 7, also made the bottom 10 portion of the state well-being list. Our neighbors in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Kentucky and West Virginia were there, too. Massachusetts topped the good-states list, in part because it aced the "basic access" portion of the well-being index. It has the highest percentage of residents with health insurance in the nation. (Folks, can we say Romneycare and Obamacare?) Here, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam turned down federal money to expand Medicaid and extend affordable insurance coverage to more Tennesseans.

The well-being index for cities, however, is most striking. Cities and their suburbs are where 80 percent of people live, so local leadership in guiding behaviors that relate to health and satisfaction is significant. Local leadership -- be it from government, business, faith-based, community-based, or education -- "plays a critical role in the success or failure of a city to embrace and sustain a culture of well-being," according to the Gallup report.

In 2006, then-Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, launched GetFitTn, a health and wellness campaign aimed preventing diabetes and encouraging Tennesseans to adopt healthier lifestyles. That same year, then-Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey, began a public campaign to stop obesity through better eating and more exercise. Those initiatives still have Web pages, but the steam seems to be gone.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's administration drafted a complete streets program that includes expanded bicycle lanes. The measure was recently approved by the City Council.

Meanwhile, the region's leadership recognizes this beautiful city with its river and mountains and with miles of Riverwalk and greenway trails is clearly a paradise for fit people and outdoor fun. We run ads all over the country trying to lure people here to kayak and climb cliffsides. Even while most of us can't.

We just have to put our ambition -- rather than our home-grown cookies -- where our mouth is.