August 1, 2008

According to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Kentucky is one of only five states in the nation to see its obesity rates decrease this year. Various entities across the state, including the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service and the Health Education through Extension Leadership program, have been and are continuing to strive for lower obesity rates in the state.

This year, the CDC reported 27.4 percent of Kentuckians were obese - a drop from the last report in 2006 that showed 28 percent were obese.  

"While this is a small drop, it is significant because now the needle is pointed in the right direction," said Debbie Murray, associate director of UK's HEEL program.

Murray and Dr. Douglas Scutchfield, Peter P. Bosomworth professor of health services research and policy in UK's College of Public Health, agree reducing obesity rates is one of the first steps to reducing the state's incidences of disease.

"Obesity's impact on diseases runs the gamut. Obesity is linked to chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes, and orthopedic diseases, such as arthritis due to the increased pressure on joints caused by extra weight," Scutchfield said.

The HEEL program began in 2001 through a Congressional earmark obtained by Sen. Mitch McConnell. Since then, HEEL has worked to lower the instances of chronic disease in the state by serving as a bridge between academic research generated at the UK College of Medicine and the UK Cooperative Extension Service agents who bring the message to Kentuckians in each of the state's 120 counties.

"A lot of our efforts have been focused on the two things that every person can make a difference with - their personal health in regards to managing their weight and their level of physical activity," Murray said.

HEEL has helped county extension agents implement programs that promote physical fitness and improved diets including Get Moving Kentucky and Weight: The Reality Series.

Between 2001 and 2007, Cooperative Extension agents positively impacted 542,530 Kentuckians, who reported a change in knowledge, skills, aspirations and opinions about lifestyle changes to improve health. Extension agents have reached 230,694 people across the state through Get Moving Kentucky alone since 2004.

While the obesity rates have improved, Kentucky still has a long way to go to meet each state's Healthy People of 2010 goal of reducing obesity rates to 15 percent or less of its population.

"Cooperative Extension needs to continue to work with all of its public health partners to get people interested in making lifestyle changes," Murray said. "One entity cannot do it by itself, but a cooperative effort between many entities can be very successful."

One way HEEL hopes to continue to lower the state's obesity rates is by focusing on the built environment in Kentucky communities. It is important to utilize available resources in the community to create opportunities that promote and encourage more physical activity and healthier lifestyles, Murray said.

Second Sunday, on Sunday, Oct. 12, is one such event. Extension agents will work with community leaders, local organizations and local governments to close at least one road in their county on that day. The goal is to encourage community walking and increase awareness of the impact of the built environment.

"To continue to improve, we have to have a cultural change, and I think we're beginning to do that," Scutchfield said.

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