Inadequate Exercise and Excess Weight Are Major Issues for Minorities

By Lenny Bernstein
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

For a sports fan, this September is a bit like Christmas. The NFL season is starting, and the speed, power and grace of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson is on display. At the U.S. Open, Serena Williams tore through the field as usual, before self-destructing. Baseball is heading toward the playoffs; the superhuman Albert Pujols has a shot at the Triple Crown. The majestic Michael Jordan was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame, and it won't be long before Kobe and LeBron are back on the floor.

Yet here is the irony I couldn't escape as I sat in front of my television last week, taking it all in: The overall fitness level of the minority groups those superstars represent is appalling. By any measure that matters, blacks and Hispanics are in worse shape than whites -- who, of course, are firmly in the grip of the obesity epidemic themselves.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 38.2 percent of whites over the age of 18 did no physical exercise (outside of work) in 2006. For blacks, the figure was 48.9 percent and for Hispanics it was an astonishing 53.4 percent.

The result of these disparities is sadly easy to predict. Fully 54 percent of African American women older than 20 are obese -- not overweight, obese -- by CDC standards. For Hispanics, the proportion is 42 percent, and for whites it is 32 percent. In combination with generally poorer diets and less access to medical care, that level of physical inactivity helps explain why minorities suffer proportionately more hypertension, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Their life expectancies also are shorter.

A larger percentage of African American and Hispanic children ages 6 to 19 are overweight than their white counterparts.

The reasons for this state of affairs are controversial and -- as with all matters of race, income and personal motivation -- a difficult subject. We'll get to them in a moment. But I bring this up now for a number of reasons.

On Wednesday night, President Obama, a fitness freak, delivered his long-awaited address on overhauling the U.S. health-care system, an effort that all sides agree must place greater emphasis on preventive measures such as improved diet and more exercise. And with summer ending, we'll all soon be spending a lot more time indoors. If you're like me, you'll be packing on the winter pounds.

Yet the approach of autumn also brings us the first annual (and possibly the first-ever) "walk-off" against obesity. On Saturday, thousands of people in more than 50 cities assembled against this killer.

The event was organized by Ian Smith, who launched the "50 Million Pound Challenge" in 2007. If you don't watch VH1's "Celebrity Fit Club" or read diet books, you may not recognize "Dr. Ian," as his fans know him. (I'd never heard of him until a colleague mentioned his name.) But among African Americans, the slim, Dartmouth-educated physician is well-known for creating a national organization that has confronted their health problems and enlisted tens of thousands in a bid to lose weight. The group has since branched out and is trying to appeal to all races.

"Listen, the swine flu isn't going to kill a tenth of the people that obesity kills on an annual basis," Smith said in an interview. "This is one of the biggest health concerns for America, and we can't get people to talk about it. . . . The sense of urgency isn't there."

One of the walk sites was in Alexandria, where Mayor William D. Euille led a team of about 40 people for a 1.5-mile walk. Over the past four years, Euille, an African American, has lost 60 pounds from his 5-foot-9 frame and kept it off.

"I got tired of hearing and reading and seeing obese kids and watching primarily African Americans suffer diabetes and high blood pressure," he said. "My role, being African American, and being leader of this city, [is that] I'm the best person to deliver that message.

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