SALT LAKE CITY — Many adults have a hard time finding time to exercise, and the trend seems to be continuing in Utah's youths.
But for those who do, health officials say, the payout is big.
"It's one of the greatest returns in terms of health over a lifetime, making sure that kids have a good start," said Dr. Robert Rolfs, deputy director of the Utah Department of Health.
Healthy decisions begin before birth, Rolfs said, and parents and other adults can do a lot for a child's long-term success by being an example and making good decisions themselves.
"Most (teenagers) don't have physical barriers to do things that are active," he said. "A lot of opportunities for physical activity at that age are just going out and having fun."
But about 50 percent of adolescents in the state don't get as much as an hour of physical activity a day, according to the 23rd annual United Health Foundation's America's Health Rankings report released Tuesday.
For the third straight year, however, Utah is slotted as the seventh healthiest state in the nation.
The report cites Utah's smoking and binge drinking rates as some of the lowest in the country, as well as the lowest prevalence of adult diabetes and a significant drop in preventable hospitalizations since 2007, as improvements for the state.
Utah also boasts the lowest rate of cancer deaths and a low incidence of violent crime, according to the report.
The state is the sixth least fat state, with a low number of obese residents when compared with the rest of the nation, and it ranks second for its percentage of residents who are physically active. But Rolfs said the numbers can be deceiving.
"Right now, one in every four Utahns is obese, and the number goes up every year," he said. "Our eating habits, especially the empty sugar calories we consume, are killing us."
Andrea Magness, of Clinton, came to a similar conclusion and decided she needed to be healthier to keep up with her two vibrant sons, ages 5 and 8.
Magness joined a gym, attended early morning fitness classes and found a great online method, www.emeals.com, to help her come up with healthy food options for her family.
Not only is her family of four healthier, they spend less money on eating out and waste less of what they buy from the grocery store each week, even while juggling busy afternoon schedules running between different sporting events that used to lead to many frantic, fast-food meals.
It's been a couple of months since they made the effort to be healthier, but Magness says she's already noticed a difference in her kids. One eats more variety and is less picky about food, and the other has the energy he needs to play hours of indoor and outdoor soccer competitively.
"He has to have energy, and if he doesn't eat right, he doesn't have the energy," she said.
The young boys also work out in their own ways because they know their mom is going to the gym.
"It isn't about losing weight or being skinny," Magness said. "I want to be a good role model to them. I want them to know that being healthy is a better lifestyle and that it makes you happy and those around you happy."
In addition to making healthy decisions about daily life, Magness, 32, said she feels better, sleeps better and is more energetic. She finds herself wanting to do more active things and still gets to indulge in her love of cooking.
Rolfs said individual commitment can only go so far and that some communities are limited in the lifestyles they promote, as it may not be safe for people to exercise outdoors, or healthy foods may be less accessible because of location or climate.
"Schools have challenges in finding time for physical education, and there's a lot of competition for kids' and adults' time," he said. "There's also an increasing number of ways to be entertained while sitting down, with all the available video games, iPhones, iPads and more."
The report, Rolfs said, is helpful to know where the state stands among other states, but looking around, he knows Utahns can do better.
Nationally, Vermont topped the list of healthiest states. Hawaii, New Hampshire, Minnesota and Connecticut also ranked ahead of Utah.
The least healthy states, according to the report, include Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, West Virginia, South Carolina and Alabama. The Southern states have consistently sunk to the bottom of the rankings, which are compiled using results from a telephone survey of nearly half a million households.
"It's as much an indicator of what the state is doing right as what it is doing wrong," Rolfs said.
Other states may just be worse in some of the categories, he said.
But Utah also has its struggles.
The report indicates that the Beehive State has a low ratio of primary care doctors to the population, especially in rural areas. And with an aging population, that problem could be compounded, Rolfs said.
Other low rankings for Utah include geographic disparities, as obesity, sedentary lifestyles and smoking are more prevalent among Native American and Hispanic populations across the state.
Utah's high school graduation rate fell from 83 percent in 2007 to 79.4 percent this year, putting it 19th in the nation. And in 29th place, Utah spends an average of $67 per resident for public health funding, whereas the No. 1 state, Hawaii, spends $236 per person.
"There's a lot of potential for improvement," Rolfs said.
Utah provides an environment in which residents can be active, he said, and it tends to draw individuals who participate in a variety of activities.
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