Obesity Study Ranks Polk Heaviest in Florida

A new study says the Lakeland-Winter Haven area has a lot of heavyweights — but not in a good way. Polk County is the heaviest county in Florida, with an obesity rate that’s nearly nine percentage points higher than the rest of the state, according to new calculations by 24/7 Wall St., a financial news website.

The site analyzed county-level data from the 2019 County Health Rankings & Roadmaps report (funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) to come up with the most obese city in each state.

The calculations included factors such as body mass index (BMI), the percentage of the adult population that doesn’t have access to exercise venues, and poverty rates. Findings:

PolkFlorida
Obesity rate35.3% 26.5%
Adults not exercising27.2% 24.7%
Population with access to exercise venues 82.2% 87.9%
Adults with diabetes14.1% 10.9%
Adults who report fair or poor health20.3% 18.5%
Poverty rate16% 14%

We talked with Alice Koehler, chief executive officer and president of Lakeland Volunteers in Medicine’ to get insights into the reasons for the results and what can be done to seek solutions.

Why did the Lakeland-Winter Haven area score so highly?

Several years ago there was a Brookings Institute study that revealed the Lakeland-Winter Haven metro area is also one of the poorest suburban areas in the U.S. 

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reports that zip code is the No. 1 determinant of life expectancy because 80% of health outcomes are based on things that occur outside of a healthcare setting.

Additionally, Polk County has a 14.2% food insecurity rate, which means that more than 90,000 people do not have the ability to provide enough food for every person in their household. In 2014, Polk County ranked eighth in the nation for food hardship, according to another Brookings Institute study.

Many of our communities face hunger and poor nutrition because grocery stores and farmers markets are not accessible; their neighborhoods are filled with fast-food chains and convenience-type stores. 

Healthy food is not accessible to many, many people in Lakeland and Winter Haven. We know that individuals who do not have access to resources – healthy food, a support network, time to exercise or plan and cook healthy meals, and medications to control diabetes — will suffer at higher rates than those who have access to more resources.

If we tie these three things together and consider that being overweight significantly increases an individual’s risk for other health issues, including high blood pressure, high LDL “bad” cholesterol, high blood sugar, smoking, heart disease, and more, then we can start to see why the Lakeland-Winter Haven area has such high rates of obesity and diabetes.

What’s the solution?

The key, from a social standpoint, is education and resources. Helping people find the tools and resources necessary to get the help they need will help people live a healthier life overall.

There are many programs throughout Polk County trying to help.

LVIM provides free primary medical, dental and mental health care to households who are working, uninsured, and living in Polk County. We can help individuals get on a plan to lose weight, to learn how to prepare healthy meals and to manage their diabetic conditions. 

Thanks to grant funding through the GiveWell Community Foundation Impact Polk program, LVIM patients have had access to the YMCA for the past two years. Additionally, our nutritionist, Katherine Bates, provides nutrition counseling to LVIM patients.

Lakeland and Polk County have a large network of resources for individuals to combat the social implications behind health issues, including BMI and weight. 

United Way of Central Florida’s 2-1-1 is an incredible resource in and of itself, but most United Way partner programs will also help individuals find the resource they need. 

At LVIM, when a patient has a need outside the scope of what we offer directly, we will do what we can to connect that patient to another agency.

What are some nutrition outlets in Lakeland that can help counter a bad BMI? 

Diet, exercise and mental health are three areas individuals can focus on to improve BMI. 

Exercise alone may not be enough to contribute to weight loss, but it does have numerous health benefits, including increased mobility, improved self-esteem and body image, lower blood pressure, and more. Often, when a person starts exercising, they start to feel better, physically and mentally. And when people start to feel better, they start doing better.

As for countywide resources, the Polk County Board of County Commissioners in partnership with UF/IFAS Extension Polk County Family and Consumer Sciences division offers an array of nutrition classes that are free to the public.

Feeding Tampa Bay has several mobile food pantry sites through a United Way of Central Florida partnership.

The Downtown Lakeland Farmer’s Curb Market accepts SNAP. And the Lakeland Family YMCA on Cleveland Heights Boulevard has a fresh fruits and vegetable vendor at least once a week. 

What are the opportunities for exercise in the area?  

The most common excuses I hear for not exercising are:

  • I’m too tired
  • I don’t have time
  • A gym membership is too expensive
  • I’m embarrassed to work out with other people
  • I have kids

Free yoga classes popping up here and there. Hosted by the Balance Culture, the next one is Oct. 5 at Lake Hollingsworth.

The YMCA offers every kind of exercise option you can imagine and has reasonable rates for membership as well as a sliding scale/scholarships for those who may not be able to pay the full membership fee.

The Kelly Recreation Complex offers classes in everything from spin (stationary bike cycling) and boxing to aerial yoga and dance. They also have a dynamite swimming pool and gym equipment for extremely reasonable prices. The Simpson Park Community Center, Lake Mirror Complex and Coleman-Bush Building also offer a limited selection of exercise opportunities.

City of Lakeland Parks and Recreation provides stellar outdoor spaces for exercise: Frances Langford Promenade at Lake Mirror, Lake Morton, Lake Hollingsworth

County, state and private hiking sites in the Lakeland area include Circle B Bar Reserve, Holloway Park, Colt Creek State Park, Tenoroc Hiking Trail and more.

In today’s culture, there are numerous on-line subscription services that make creating an individualized exercise program easy. Even YouTube and Netflix have exercise options. 

Exercise can also be simple and free. Hula-hoop in your backyard, walk your dog for 30 minutes around your neighborhood, and play tag with your kids.

For more information on LVIM, visit lvim.net or call 863-688-5846.

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