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Southern U.S. Less Energetic Than Nation's West And North

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(This article was published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the March 7, 2011 edition.)

If Saturdays find you in an easy chair with a magazine--weary from the workweek--when you should be outside weeding the garden, you're not alone. New Orleans residents are less physically active in their leisure time than Americans in the West and parts of the North and Northeast, according to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released in mid February.

The CDC found that American adults were inactive for anywhere between 10.1% and 43% of their free time in 2008. Counties in the southern U.S. and parts of Appalachia were the most inert, while those in the West and the Rockies were peppiest.

Along with Louisiana, residents of Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Tennessee were least likely to exert themselves in their down time.

In Louisiana's Orleans Parish, 28.1% of adults were physically inactive during their leisure time in 2008, the CDC found. Jefferson Parish was slightly lazier at 29%, with Plaquemines at 33% and St. Bernard at 34.4%. In the River Parishes, inactivity rates were 27.9% in St. Charles, 31.8% in St. James and 33.5% in St. John the Baptist. St. Tammany residents were comparatively energized, with an inactivity rate of 24.4%--the lowest in the state.

The CDC used data from state-based telephone surveys of adults and 2007 census information to make its estimates. Participants were asked if they engaged in any physical activities--like walking, gardening, running and golfing--outside of their jobs. Catching Mardi Gras beads and tending to the outdoor grill weren't included in activities.

But does it really matter if you spent last Sunday afternoon categorizing your parade catches on the living room floor instead of tossing a ball in the park? It does if being inert has become a pattern because in that case you might suffer health consequences, according to researchers. The CDC said physical activity can help control weight; reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers; strengthen bones and muscles and improve mental health.

Pam Butler, manager at Touro Diabetes Center in New Orleans, said last week that being active and maintaining a healthy weight are keys to preventing diabetes. "Diabetes is part of a cluster of diseases, including obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol," she noted. Since twice as many people have pre-diabetes as diabetes, prevention efforts are critical. Touro's center focuses on diabetes education.

"We have the advantage of good weather year round here but our rates of diabetes are well above those of most northern states that are snowed in part of the year," Butler said "Our rural areas, where people don't have to worry about traffic and could be out walking and riding bikes, are doing poorly."

"Greater New Orleans does poorly as well," Butler said. "One factor is that New Orleans is a predominantly African American city, and African Americans are a high-risk group for developing diabetes." According to the CDC, 18.7% of non-Hispanic blacks aged 20 years or older nationally suffer from undiagnosed or diagnosed diabetes, versus 10.2% of non-Hispanic white adults.

Other factors that aren't helping the Crescent City are driving short distances instead of walking, downing fried food with soft drinks and frequenting fast food-joints. Kids are holed up indoors, staring at screens.

"The consequences of inactivity in our youth are sobering," Butler said. In 2010, the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge released a report card giving Louisiana's children a health grade of "D," unchanged from the two previous years. "In New Orleans and surrounding parishes, kids are developing diabetes and high blood pressure, conditions that until recently were only found in adults," Butler said.

Butler agrees with the CDC that 150 minutes of physical activity weekly is a good health target. And she said, "it will be wonderful when NORD has all kinds of programs in place again." In a budget presented in October, Mayor Landrieu doubled funding for the New Orleans Recreation Dept. to $10 million annually. The city hopes to open a dozen, damaged municipal pools this year.

Meanwhile, one thing that the Crescent City has going for it is that people like to dance much more here than in the Midwest, where she grew up, Butler said.

Rudy Macklin, director of the Governor's Council on Physical Fitness & Sports in Louisiana and a former college athlete and National Basketball Association player, said "the CDC sampling was based on random phone surveys, and the results show that we as a state have much more work to do."

Macklin said "we need to address childhood obesity in particular, and must open more parks and playgrounds in urban areas and install new playground equipment. NORD needs a lot of help, including more funding. It would be good to have more bike paths but we have much more pressing needs right now."

He said "I'd like to see communities form walking clubs and start to take ownership of their own health situations."

Macklin continued, saying that New Orleans public schools need to become re-involved in the statewide, Olympic-style fitness meets sponsored by the Governor's Council on Fitness, after Katrina quashed participation. "This program rewards fitness champions in seven health-related activities-- 50-yard dash, the shuttle run, pull-ups, curl-ups, standing long-jump, the 600-yard run and the V-sit & reach--with the top two boys and girls from each parish sent to the state championship in Baton Rouge," he said. Kids who can't excel in basketball, baseball, football or track and field can still be "fitness champions," he noted.

Macklin said "we'd like to see everyone get involved in the Governor's Games for anybody from age 8 to 80, with over sixty Olympic-style, sporting events around the state." Senior citizens can participate in ballroom dancing, tennis, pickle ball, run-walks, weightlifting and triathlons, he said.

As for healthy food, Macklin said if customers don't like a supermarket practice of piling donuts and pastries near entrances and along aisles, "they should organize a group to go and talk with the store manager. That's much more effective than one or two people complaining. Before Katrina, communities asked stores to make tobacco less visible to kids and it was effective. You need the community to pressure businesses."

He continued, saying that more farmers' markets are being organized to provide access to fresh fruit and vegetables. "With the help of partners like the Mayor's office, students from University of New Orleans, City Council officials and members of the state legislature, new farmers' markets will be set up in urban areas like Hardin Park in the lower Seventh Ward near St. Augustine High," he said. The new Seventh Ward market could open this spring.

In mid-March, the state's Living Well in Louisiana program, formerly called Lighten Up Louisiana, will launch an online site, providing six-month, health challenges for schools, workplaces, communities and families. The program is sponsored by the state Dept. of Health and Hospitals and the Governor's Council on Physical Fitness & Sports. Macklin said "you choose your own beginning date and follow the fitness instructions. The site is a toolkit of health and wellness tips and how-to videos."

The Governor's Council on Physical Fitness & Sports doesn't receive state funding but depends on bits and pieces of grants from the federal government and sponsor organizations, Macklin said. "We apply for grants like everyone else. The CDC, the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services and its Office of Minority Health have been good to us, but our budget is meager."

Butler said this is her fourth year at Touro Diabetes Center, and "our patient numbers have grown every year. While we need a doctor's referral to see a patient, we also provide workshops and will schedule them for community groups, churches and senior centers if they can guarantee that people will attend." For more information about prevention workshops, call 504-897-8813 or e-mail Diabetes@Touro.com.

And if you're wondering what cities New Orleans falls short of, Boulder, Colo. is ranked by the CDC as the nation's most-active burg--probably because everyone is off skiing or rock climbing. Other high-energy towns are Santa Fe, N.M.; Santa Cruz, Calif.; Medford, Ore. and Boise, Idaho. end