WASHINGTON – Maryland residents got fatter faster than residents of most other states in the nation in the 1990s, according to a recent report.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study said the percentage of Marylanders who were obese – more than 20 percent over their healthy body weight — rose from 11.2 percent of the state population in 1991 to 19.8 percent in 1998.
That 75.8 percent increase was the fifth-largest among the 45 states that participated in the study.
Obesity increased across every racial, gender and age group in each of the states studied for “The Spread of the Obesity Epidemic in the United States,” which was reported in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Maryland was among the states that fared the worst.
“From being below the national average (12 percent) in 1991, Maryland has gone to being above the national average (17.9 percent) in 1998,” said Barbara Bowman, chief of the Chronic Disease and Nutrition Branch at the Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity, and one of the authors of the study.
And the problem may be worse than it looks, she said.
Data used in the study comes from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which is a telephone survey of adults over 18.
“People in the lower socioeconomic groups may not have a phone, and these are the groups that are at higher risk for obesity because they eat unhealthy foods,” Bowman said.
Obesity can significantly increase the risk of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and hypertension. Cardiovascular disease, the No. 1 killer in the state, accounts for 36 percent of all deaths in Maryland, according to the 1996 Healthy Maryland report from the National Center for Health Statistics.
“Diet is a very high contributing factor to mortality and morbidity,” said Carol Friedman, executive director of the Maryland State Advisory Council on Physical Fitness.
Reasons behind Maryland’s increase in obesity are the same as the reasons for the rest of the country — more high-calorie food, less physical activity.
“People move less these days and eat more . we spend a lot of time at our computers. Even our leisure time is not active any more — a good life is lying on the beach and sipping high-sugar drinks,” Friedman said.
Robert Keenan, a former National Institutes of Health researcher who runs the Elite Center for people with weight problems, says half of the obesity in the country could be linked to the fact that around 25 million people have quit smoking in the past decade. While smoking leads to severe health risks, ex- smokers could pile on the pounds very fast, he said.
“People who are already overweight and give up smoking could easily become obese,” he said.
A longer life-span could also be a contributing factor, he said. “As people grow older, they gain weight.”
But obesity is emerging as a problem among children, too. Friedman said the number of obese children has increased 30 percent over the past few years.
“Children are spending more time playing computer games than playing with real people outside their homes,” she said.
While there has been more talk in recent years about the importance of physical activity, the number of physically active people has stayed around 15 percent over the past several years, she said.
About 68.8 percent of people in Maryland do not do any physical activity at all. As a result, she said, as many as 34.4 percent of state residents were overweight in 1998, or 10 to 20 percent over their ideal body weight.
The only remedy is physical exercise, Friedman said. Running on the treadmill, a brisk 30-minute walk or work that conditions the muscles can all help.
The state has been fighting the battle against obesity for years with educational programs for people in all age groups, including children and senior citizens. But in the end, keeping fit called for “people to change their perspective on life,” Friedman said.
“Motivation to stay fit is not going to come from a keynote speaker. This is a lifelong habit,” she said.