About one in three Arkansas residents is obese, and doctors say it’s leading to people dying much younger than they need to, and leading unhealthier lives in the meantime.
“They have more co-morbidities, which means they have other disease processes that basically can shorten their lifespans, such as diabetes and hypertension and heart disease,” said Dr. Shane Speights, dean of the New York Institute of Technology's College of Osteopathic Medicine at Arkansas State University. He said since the human body is not meant to carry hundreds of extra pounds, morbidly obese humans may suffer severe hip, joint, knee or ankle pain.
“It actually remolds the bones over time because of that heavy weight sitting on the bones,” he said. He noted that any falls or fractures can then leave the person in an even worse position if they have no mobility left with which they can attempt exercise.
According to the annual State of Obesity report from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Arkansas is the sixth most obese state. It has been first in the rankings.
But, depending on how you look at it, the shift in rank may be relief or red herring. Albert Lang, a senior communications manager with Trust for America’s Health, said there was no significant statistical difference between Arkansas’s obesity rate when it was considered the fattest state and today. Other states simply experienced enough growth to exceed Arkansas. Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, West Virginia and Kentucky have now surpassed Arkansas, Lang said.
“The rate remains incredibly high.”
Despite the discouraging statistics, organizers of a recent two-day international weight loss convention at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock aimed to spread hope that people with hundreds of pounds to lose have more room to achieve.
Fayetteville resident Bonnie Wiles said 120 pounds ago, she used to hide in the background in pictures.
“Now I like to shine and get out there in front,” she said, holding back tears.
Wiles was named Queen of Arkansas by the organizing nonprofit Take Off Pounds Sensibly. It boasts 125,000 members in the U.S. and Canada and hosts a convention every year.
Cody Krebs, 15, of Poteau, Oklahoma said he started his weight-loss journey as an overweight 13-year-old when he wasn’t picked for a football team and longed to join friends who were starting to get into rodeo. He lost so much weight during one summer break that when he returned to school people didn’t recognize him and he had to pull up old photos on his cell phone to remind them.
“I used to sit around. Now, I’m almost 100 percent outside,” he said.
He suggested that other teens struggling with weight find a friend who’s very active in something they might enjoy, and join him.
Lynn Craig of Maplewood, Minnesota said she was motivated by a milestone 50th birthday to shed more than 160 pounds.
“It’s interesting. People treat you differently,” she said.
She described it as having lived in “both worlds.”
Washington State resident Stephen Tate was told he might lose his right arm to a diabetes-related infection. Even then, losing weight wasn’t easy.
“It was like a really bad roller coaster hill for me at times.”
He managed cycles of gains and losses until he finally hit his goal weight of 220 pounds last December.
“Last year, I ran over 2,000 miles because my energy has been back, and I enjoy it,” said Fairfield Bay resident Joe Giannini, the organization's weight loss King of Arkansas.
According to the State of Obesity report, 34.5 percent of Arkansas residents are overweight. As of 2015, the state ranked fourth for hypertension and seventh for diabetes.
“There are some big numbers there, in terms of those two dangerous health conditions,” said Lang, but there’s also hope that some states will stall increases in the overall rates of obesity by the time of the next report due out late next month or early September.
Speights said he expects slow progress in the near future.
“Obviously, we’d like to see [trends reversing] at a quicker pace, but realistically you can’t expect that. You’re taking about changing a culture. You’re taking about changing how people live their daily lives."
In the South, “we love to eat,” and that eating with others is an expected way to socialize.
Participants at the convention stressed that even little changes here and there can help with the never-ending battle against obesity in Arkansas.
“There’s always a miracle. It may take a while, but just don’t give up,” urged Bonnie Wiles.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.