Studies conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison present new evidence of the scope of the obesity epidemic in Wisconsin. In 2015 to 2016, 41.2% of adults and 14.8% of children statewide had obesity.
As high as these overall numbers are, they mask another set of findings that are arguably more important for Wisconsin’s long-term health and prosperity. We describe patterns of obesity rates by age and by place. We find that there are neighborhoods in Wisconsin where children are almost six times more likely to be obese than in other nearby neighborhoods. Obesity rates are lowest in early childhood and highest in middle age. These patterns highlight how people across Wisconsin face differences in the conditions that shape their weight and health.
Most people probably already know that it’s important to eat a healthy diet and be physically active in order to maintain a healthy weight. That’s true, because our habits add up over time to shape our weight and health. Sticking with healthy habits like being physically active, eating nutritious food, and maintaining a healthy weight helps to reduce the risk of the leading causes of death in the United States, like heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and some kinds of cancer. That means living longer and facing fewer health challenges.
But focusing only on an individual’s healthy habits leaves out a big part of the story. Our choices about diet and physical activity are important, but the places and conditions in which we live can make it easier or harder to make healthy choices about what to eat and how to be physically active in our everyday life. Have you ever made a New Year’s resolution to be more physically active, eat better, or lose weight? Think of all the things that affected your ability to stick with it. Did your family and friends support you? Could you afford healthy food or a gym membership? Were there convenient places for you to buy healthy foods and be active? Did your new healthier choices fit into your routine? Did you have time, energy, skills, and a place to cook healthy meals? Were you embarrassed or worried that people around you might make discouraging comments? Did you feel safe being active in your neighborhood?
In short, not all of us have it easy when it comes to making healthy choices. The choices we make are dependent on the opportunities we have, and conditions in our communities help shape our opportunities to be healthy. There are communities where opportunities to be healthy are abundant and affordable and supported, so healthy choices are relatively easy for everyone. Just as many communities have limited opportunities for affordable healthy eating and physical activity or other serious obstacles to healthy choices. In those places, residents face extra barriers and stresses that impact their ability to maintain a healthy weight and increase their chances of having obesity.
Obesity is a disease. It is an incredibly complicated disease, and many different factors play a role. There is no one solution to obesity, but there are many ways that we can work to make Wisconsin a healthier place for everyone. We do that by making healthy choices easier for all people—for all ages, all abilities, and in all communities. It will work best if everyone participates to find solutions that fit their communities’ unique needs and strengths.
Want to know more? https://www.wihealthatlas.org/obesity/findings/