Obesity in Arkansas: A Call to Action


By Joe Thompson, MD, MPH

President and CEO, Arkansas Center for Health Improvement

A recent study contains some alarming statistics: America’s death rate is declining more slowly than in years past, and more slowly in comparison to the death rates of other wealthy nations. The study suggests this is due, in part, to rising obesity levels.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences under the title “The Role of Obesity in Exceptionally Slow Mortality Improvement,” the study found that even setting aside increases in the U.S. death rate related to the opioid epidemic, progress in improving mortality is slowing. The researchers suggested that advances in areas such as medical technology and tobacco cessation are being offset by rising levels of body mass index.

From 1976 to 1980, 15 percent of Americans were obese, but by 2014, 38 percent were obese, according to the study. The researchers found that in 2011, obesity accounted for about 186,000 excess deaths and reduced Americans’ life expectancy by almost a year by age 40.

Obesity is a national crisis. The 2017 America’s Health Rankings Annual Report by the United Health Foundation noted that every country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has a lower obesity rate than Colorado, the least obese state in the U.S. But the problem is particularly severe in Arkansas: The United Health Foundation ranked us better than only two states for adult obesity rate, with the rate increasing over the past five years from 30.9 percent to 35.7 percent.

Arkansas has made great strides in improving access to health care. Its innovative, bipartisan approach to expanding coverage through Medicaid has cut the state’s uninsured rate in half and allowed Arkansas to avoid hospital closures seen in many surrounding states that chose to reject Medicaid expansion. But the health of Arkansans will not significantly improve without changes in behavior.

Increasing the percentage of Arkansans who are at a healthy weight is the goal of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s Healthy Active Arkansas initiative, now entering its third year. Complementing the work of the Arkansas Coalition for Obesity Prevention, the initiative has launched the Statewide Learning Network, which helps communities across the state develop and implement action plans to promote healthy behaviors in their populations.

At five regional meetings across the state in 2017, nearly 250 community members joined the Statewide Learning Network, and there are plans to invite others to join at several meetings again this year. For more information, email sln@achi.net or call (501) 526-2255.

Even our legislators and constitutional officers are getting into the act. During last year’s legislative session, the House, the Senate, and the Governor’s Office competed in the CapitolGO! Challenge, during which participants were encouraged to log their steps using a smartphone app. More than 30 million steps were logged overall, with the Senate taking top honors for logging an average of 6,743 steps per day.

During this year’s fiscal session, Arkansas’s constitutional officers and legislators are focusing on reducing sugar-sweetened beverages in a new competition, the CapitolGO! Healthy Hydration Challenge.

Challenges are a good way to get people active, get them thinking about healthy behaviors, and inject some fun competition. You or your business, school, or church can get involved by participating in the Blue & You Fitness Challenge each year. Over three months, participants log eligible exercises and earn points for both physical activity and participation levels. For more information, visit blueandyoufitnesschallenge-ark.com. The deadline for signing up is the end of February.

I am confident we can make Arkansas a healthier, more productive and more competitive state. We have a comprehensive, state-level plan, but commitments from communities, businesses, schools and individuals are necessary if we are going to move the needle on one of the most serious issues we face as a state, obesity.

Joe Thompson, MD, MPH, is president and CEO of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement and served for 10 years as Arkansas’s inaugural surgeon general under Governors Mike Huckabee (R) and Mike Beebe (D). Follow him on Twitter @JoeThompsonMD and @ACHI_net.

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