SALT LAKE CITY — Americans are exercising more than ever, and residents of Utah's Summit and Wasatch counties are among those who move the most.
New releases by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation out of the University of Washington studied obesity and activity levels between 2001 and 2009 at the county level nationwide.
Men in Summit County were the second most physically active in the nation with 73.2 percent reporting "sufficient physical activity," which is defined as 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous activity weekly.
Wasatch County men ranked eightth with 71.7 percent, compared to men in Teton, Wyo., who ranked first with 77.5 percent.
Summit County women were the sixth most active in the nation, with 69.6 percent reporting "sufficient physical activity."
Summit County was also listed as having among the lowest obesity rates. Researchers calculated body mass indexes by using self-reported weight and height data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. Those with a BMI above 30 kilograms per meter squared were defined as "obese."
Summit County men ranked 10th lowest in the nation, at 22.4 percent, compared to 18.3 percent in San Francisco, which ranked No. 1. Summit County women were the sixth-least obese at 20 percent, compared to women in the city of Falls Church, Va., which ranked as the least obese county with 17.6 percent.
Life expectancy nationwide is not keeping pace with other nations, according to a study that measured counties throughout the nation between 1985 and 2010 published in the Population Health Metrics.
The county with the oldest average life expectancy for women was 85 years in 2010, up from the 81.1 reported from the oldest county in 1985. The lowest, Perry, Ky., at almost 73 years, is lower than the average death age for women in Botswana, the study said.
Men, on the other hand, are closing the life expectancy gap. The county with the highest life expectancy average was at 81.7 years in 2010, up from 75.5 years reported in 1985. The lowest reported in 2010 was almost 64 years, in McDowell, W.V., younger than Indonesia.
"That's slow progress in life expectancy compared to other countries around the world, and it's especially slow for women," said Haidong Wang, assistant professor of global health at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
Even though Utah is doing well, "there's always room to improve," according to Rebecca Fronberg, manager of the physical activity, nutrition and obesity program at the Utah Department of Health.
In other words, even though Americans are exercising more, that may not be enough to flip the scales.
For obesity levels to begin dropping in pace with the increase of physical activity, Americans need to adjust their caloric intake so that what they consume is less than what they burn, according to Ali Mokdad, professor of global health at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
Each individual needs to reach that balance personally, he said, adding that regardless of whether or not a person loses weight, it is important for them to exercise to stave off cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
A separate study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, looked at health risk factors in the United States from 1990 to 2010. Findings showed fewer diseases that impact lifespan and more mental, behavioral, neurological, musculoskeletal issues and chronic disorders. Chronic disorders made up for half of the health loss in 2010 nationally, and mental and behavioral issues such as anxiety and depression made up 27 percent of "years lived with disability." Health wellness had fallen and trailed economic contemporaries in Europe, Asia and North America. Among serious health problems, body mass index was measured as the fourth most prevalent risk factor leading to death in the United States.
The United States spends the most on health and has "mediocre outcomes," Dr. Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, said during a media conference Wednesday.
In Australia, a country similar to the U.S. in its age and presence of an indigenous population, they are more aggressive than the U.S. in fighting against health risks such as tobacco and drinking and driving, according to Mokdad. These policies have allowed them to improve health more quickly.
"We spend more money than anybody else on health and we debate health more than anybody else in the world, and that's OK. For me that's not the question," Mokdad said. "The question is, 'Are we getting a return on our investment? Are we getting our money's worth?' And the answer clearly is no.
"Other countries are beating us up and we are falling behind when it comes to life expectancy gain and many of the other indicators as well."
This may be due to the presence of risk factors in Americans' lifestyles and diets, researchers said.
As of early 2013, no states reported that residents were consuming the required amount of fruits and vegetables per day, according to the 2013 State Indicator Report on Fruits and Vegetables generated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, the best performing states hovered around two combined fruits and vegetables per day, well below the recommended averages of between one and two cups of fruit and one and three cups of vegetables, according to the Utah Department of Agriculture. Utah adults consume 1.1 fruits and 1.7 vegetables daily, and adolescents eat 1.0 fruits and 1.3 vegetables.
Within each state in the United States, Mokdad said, there are major discrepancies between areas that have good health and those that do not. For instance, although Summit County performed well in Utah for high activity and low obesity, other counties do not make the list.
Four major factors need to be addressed in order to even out the inequality, Mokdad said. They include the socioeconomic status — income and education — of an area; access to medical care — which includes not only those who don't have insurance but those who are under-insured; proximity to medical care, early diagnosis and physician followup; and preventable risk factors such as smoking, obesity and diet.
The United States fell from 18th to 27th in age-specific death rates, from 20th to 27th in life expectancy from birth, and 14th to 26th in healthy life expectancy, according to the report.
Major contributors to loss of health, and leading causes of death include dietary risks with 678,282 deaths, smoking with 465,651 deaths, high blood pressure with 442,656 deaths, high body mass index with 363,991 deaths and physical inactivity leading to 234,022 deaths nationwide.
The United States did improve in lowering disease burden rates of diseases in childhood since 1990, lower mortality rates for all ages since 1990 and reduced deaths from HIV/AIDS. However, other countries are getting healthier more quickly, the report said.
Change needs to happen from the community level, Fronberg said, and it may take some time.
Already in Utah, the Utah Department of Health is taking measures to help communities. In 2011, it developed a plan to help communities better accommodate for pedestrians and bicyclists. Although this was a small piece of the solution, it was what Fronberg called a "baby step" toward shifting people's thinking toward healthy lifestyles.
"It's taken us over 20 years to get into this mess. It's going to take us a long time to dig out of this again, but I think it is doable," she said.
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