Alaskans like to think of ourselves as rugged individuals, far removed from the lethargy and urban sprawl of the Lower 48. But figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that if we want to live up to that image, we’d better start exercising and getting outside more. Far from being a land of strapping frontier residents, Alaska’s obesity problem reflects a problem with weight very similar to the one facing the rest of the U.S.
It’s hard to overstate how consequential the struggle with obesity is for Alaska and the U.S. With an adult obesity rate of 29.7 percent, Alaska is 24th among the 50 states, squarely in the middle of the bell curve. That means three in 10 Alaskans are significantly overweight, with a body mass index of 30 or higher. For the average American with height of 5 feet, 9 inches, the “obese” range starts at around 203 pounds, according to the CDC’s website.
All those extra pounds add up to serious costs for the state — $459 million per year, according to state Division of Public Health Obesity Prevention and Control Program Manager Karol Fink. That’s more than $100 million more per year than health costs associated with tobacco ($318 million) and a substantial fraction of the state’s budget shortfall, though many of the costs of obesity are borne by Alaskans directly through medical expenses and other secondary costs.
The nationwide obesity epidemic, which has its epicenter in the Midwest and South, is one to which no state appears to have a cure. Even Colorado, the nation’s least-obese state, has more than a fifth of its adult residents falling above the obesity threshold.
The good news, insofar as there is good news, is that such high rates of obesity are a fairly recent development. In 1991, only 13 percent of Alaskans were obese — less than half the current rate. The factors contributing to obesity in Alaska are many: Long, cold winters that make it difficult to get outside, a relatively minimal amount of locally grown produce and sedentary work environments for most residents are just a few. But if such a serious problem can arise in a relatively short time period, it can also be turned around.
But just as many factors have gone into increasing the state and nation’s obesity rate, a multi-pronged solution is needed to combat the problem. The state is working with schools and businesses to offer healthier food options, sponsor fitness challenges and promote awareness of the importance of staying at a healthy weight.
Part of the responsibility, too, falls on our own shoulders. A healthy lifestyle can start with buying more nutritious foods at the grocery store, going to the gym on the weekend or choosing to walk with friends on a lunch break instead of grabbing fast food. And it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing commitment: Just as there were many steps on the way to this point, every step taken away from obesity — however small — helps take the state to a better place.
Statistics from the CDC indicate that without action on obesity, the current generation of young people could be the first whose life expectancy is shorter than that of their parents. That would be an awful legacy — let’s turn it around so we can spend more time exploring the state we love.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,