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This may seem random, given this blog is generally about health and fitness but bare with me and I will make the connection.  Having been born in Huntington, WVA and leaving the area in 1987, I have never been what I would call “proud” of my home town.  In fact, just the opposite.  I couldn’t wait to leave the dismal, gray, poverty stricken area and find out what else was out there in the world. I have been gone since 1987 and, although I return home for family visits, I can honestly say I have never missed the area.  Today, never more so.  I log on to Comcast to check my e-mail and there was a tagline that caught my eye: “America’s Fatest City.”  Here is what is said:

W. Virginia town shrugs at poorest health ranking

Ashley Potter, at left, an Exercise Physiologist with the H.E.A.R.T. Champions program at …


Sun Nov 16, 5:29 PM EST

As a portly woman plodded ahead of him on the sidewalk, the obese mayor of America’s fattest and unhealthiest city explained why health is not a big local issue.

“It doesn’t come up,” said David Felinton, 5-foot-9 and 233 pounds, as he walked toward City Hall one recent morning. “We’ve got a lot of economic challenges here in Huntington. That’s usually the focus.”

Huntington’s economy has withered, its poverty rate is worse than the national average, and vagrants haunt a downtown riverfront park. But this city’s financial woes are not nearly as bad as its health.

Nearly half the adults in Huntington’s five-county metropolitan area are obese — an astounding percentage, far bigger than the national average in a country with a well-known weight problem.

Huntington leads in a half-dozen other illness measures, too, including heart disease and diabetes. It’s even tops in the percentage of elderly people who have lost all their teeth (half of them have).

It’s a sad situation, and a potential harbinger of what will happen to other U.S. communities, said Ken Thorpe, an Emory University health policy professor who is working with West Virginia officials on health reform legislation.

“They may be at the very top, but obesity and diabetes trends are very similar” in many other communities, particularly in the South, Thorpe said.

The Huntington area’s health problems, cited in a U.S. health report, are a terrible distinction for the city, but the locals barely talk about it. Many don’t even know how poorly the city ranks.

Culture and history are at least part of the problem, health officials say.

This city on the Ohio River is surrounded by Appalachia’s thinly populated hills. It has long been a blue-collar, white-skinned community — overwhelmingly people of English, Irish and German ancestry.

For decades, Huntington thrived with the coal mines to its south, as barges, trucks and trains loaded with the black fuel continually chugged into and past the city. There were plenty of manufacturing jobs in the chemical industry and in glassworks, steel and locomotive parts. Nearly 90,000 people lived in the city in 1950.

The traditional diet was heavy with fried foods, salt, gravy, sauces, and fattier meats — dense with calories burnt off through manual labor. Obesity was not a worry then. Workplace injuries were.

But as the coal industry modernized and the economy changed, manufacturing jobs left. The city’s population is now fewer than 50,000, and chronic diseases — many of them connected to obesity — seem much more common.

Shari Wiley is a nurse at St. Mary’s Regional Heart Institute in Huntington. She runs a program that identifies heavy school children and tries to teach them better eating and exercise habits. The effort began because of an alarming trend.

“A lot of the patients we were seeing were getting heart attacks in their 30s. They were requiring open heart surgery in their 30s. And we were concerned because it used to be you wouldn’t see heart patients come in until they were in their 50s,” Wiley said.

The Huntington area is essentially tied with a few other metro areas for proportion of people who don’t exercise (31 percent), have heart disease (22 percent) and diabetes (13 percent). The smoking rate is pretty high, too, although not the worst.

However, the region is a clear-cut leader in dental problems, with nearly half the people age 65 and older saying they have lost all their natural teeth. And no other metro area comes close to Huntington’s adult obesity rate, according to the report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based on data from 2006.

Perhaps fittingly, hospitals are now Huntington’s largest employers. Another is Marshall University, home of the “Thundering Herd” football team depicted in the 2006 film “We Are Marshall” which dominates local sports conversations.

The river runs along the edge of town, but it’s not a focal point. Marshall and one of the city’s remaining factories sit to the east with several blocks of hotels and office buildings farther west. A new complex called Pullman Square — which includes a movie theater and a Starbucks — is trying to become a retail and dining center and illustrates a transition to a service economy.

The area’s unemployment rate was about 5 percent in September, actually a bit better than the 6.1 percent national average that month. But often the jobs are not high-paying. Many workers lack health insurance, and corporate wellness programs — common at large national companies — are rare.

Poverty hovers, with the area rate at 19 percent, much higher than the national average. In the hilly coal fields to the South, people still live in houses or trailers with drooping, battered roofs. They stare hard at any stranger in a new car. In Huntington and its outskirts, many people think of exercise and healthy eating as luxuries.

The economy needs to pick up “so people can afford to get healthy,” said Ronnie Adkins, 67, a retired policeman, as he sat one recent morning on the smoking porch of the Jolly Pirate Donuts shop on U.S. 60.

Doughnut shops don’t help either, of course. But breakfast pastry shops aren’t the most common outlets for fatty food. Pizza joints are. They are seemingly on every block in some parts of the city. The online Yellow Pages lists more pizza places (nearly 200) for the Huntington area than the entire state of West Virginia has gyms and health clubs (149).

Hot dog places also abound, with the city hosting an annual hot dog festival every summer. “I’ve never seen so many places that are hot dog oriented. I guess it’s a cultural thing. Appalachian,” said Mayor Felinton, who grew up in Maryland and moved to Huntington to attend Marshall University and stayed put.

Fast food has become a staple, with many residents convinced they can’t afford to buy healthier foods, said Keri Kennedy, manager of the state health department’s Office of Healthy Lifestyles.

Kennedy said she had just seen a commercial that presented “The KFC $10 Challenge.” The fried-chicken chain placed a family in a grocery store and challenged them to put together a dinner for $10 or less that was comparable to KFC’s seven-piece, $9.99 value meal.

“This is what we’re up against,” said Kennedy, noting it’s an extremely persuasive ad for a low-income family that is accustomed to fried foods. “I don’t know what you do to counter that.”

Lack of exercise is another concern. During a warm and sunny autumn week in Huntington — the kind of weather that would bring out small armies of joggers in some cities — it was unusual to see a runner or bicyclist. The exercise that does occur is mostly confined to a local YMCA, at campus recreation facilities at Marshall, or at Ritter Park in a tony neighborhood south of downtown.

Some attribute the problem to crumbling sidewalks in the city and a lack of walkways along busy rural roads. Others blame it on lack of motivation, as well as a cultural attitude that never included exercise for health.

There’s a connection between education and lack of exercise, too, said Dr. Thomas Dannals, a Huntington family physician.

“The undereducated don’t know the value of it. They don’t have the drive for it. There’s a reason you’re successful, you’ve got drive. The same is true for exercise,” said Dannals.

Dannals has been trying to change cultural attitudes. The local newspaper has called him “an exercise evangelist” for founding the city’s triathlon, marathon and other projects designed to make exercise popular and fun. He’s also spearheading a riverfront exercise trail project, called the Paul Ambrose Trail for Health (PATH).

Ambrose was a Huntington physician who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, jet that crashed into the Pentagon. Just before he died, he had been working on a U.S. Surgeon General report on obesity, and was on the plane that morning to attend an adolescent obesity conference in Los Angeles.

But the PATH project, first proposed more than a year ago, has yet to win the necessary funding. The lack of support is not surprising: Dannals can’t even get a company to sponsor the Huntington marathon.

Local politicians tend to be equally tepid about improving health, said Dr. Harry Tweel, director of the Cabell-Huntington Health Department.

Smoking — a common sin in West Virginia — has been hard to control, Tweel said. When the health department tried to restrict smoking in local bars and restaurants, a group of local businesses fought it all the way to the state Supreme Court. (The restrictions were upheld in 2003.) Even hospitals have fought smoking restrictions in the past, Tweel said.

Other communities have taken more ambitious steps to control the amount of fat in local restaurant food. In July, the Los Angeles City Council placed a moratorium on new fast food restaurants in an impoverished area of the city with above-average rates of obesity. In 2006, New York City became the first U.S. city to ban artificial trans fats in restaurant foods. Other cities are considering similar measures.

Forget it, Tweel said. Not in Huntington.

“You’re mentioning areas (of the country) that are well beyond this local region in accepting that kind of change,” said Tweel.

“People here have an attitude of ‘You’re not going to tell me what I can eat.’ The cultural attitude is ‘My parents ate that and my grandparents ate that,'” he said.

Mayor Felinton echoed Tweel. Felinton had stomach surgery last year to help him lose weight and has been walking to work about three days a week. He has shed nearly 80 pounds and became sort of a local poster boy for weight loss. But in the midst of a re-election campaign last month, he said he had no plans to plunge into a fight over fat in restaurants.

“We want as much business as we can have here,” said Felinton, who lost his recent re-election bid and leaves office in January. “As many restaurants as you have, it kind of enhances the livability. Maybe not the health.”

To be fair, most people in Huntington don’t seem to be aware of how poorly their city looks in national health statistics.

The latest numbers came from the CDC report, released in August, but little-publicized. It was based on survey data from 2006, comparing about 150 metropolitan areas. The Huntington area includes five counties — two in West Virginia, two in Kentucky and one in Ohio.

Of the 40 Huntington-area residents interviewed for this story, many had heard something about West Virginia being one of the unhealthiest states. But only one — Tweel — knew about the latest report showing how bad Huntington compared with other metro areas.

Some doctors, on hearing the statistics, noted the Huntington area is not in such bad shape by West Virginia standards. A recent state study found that health problems are significantly worse in the more rural coal counties to the south. But those places didn’t show up in the CDC report, because they were too small.

Still, Huntington is an unusually obese place, said Dr. John Walden, chairman of the family and community health department at Marshall University’s medical school.

Walden is a third generation physician in the area, but he’s also traveled extensively around the world. He says it’s always a little jolting coming home and realizing how obese his hometown is compared to the rest of the world.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever been in a place where I’ve seen so many overweight people,” he said.

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If the early bird truly gets the worm, then I have more than my share this week.  I have had my alarm set everyday for 5:00 AM but have been awake before it went off each day.  Go me!  I grab my things and off I go to the gym.  Monday was weight training (no legs, unfortunately; doctores orders),  and stretching.  Tuesday I tackle the eliptical trainer again, shooting for a sustained target rate of 180.  Wednesday was a run for two miles (20:03 minutes) followed by a mile and half walk.  Thursday I ran for two and a half miles and then walked for the remaining mile.  Friday was a day of rest and I took it.  Unfortuanately, I took one on Saturday as well.  Hal’s plan called for 40 minutes of cross training and I had planned to do it, I really did!  Instead, I push -mowed the lawn (about an hour and a half of work) and the humidity was just too much.  I wimped out and categorized this as my “cross training”-don’t tell Hal!

I finished up my week with a three mile run today and again the humidity really zapped me.  I had intended to run five, but ended up running the three and then walking one more. 

The half marathon is nine weeks away.  I really need to step it up if I still plan on running it. I am a little demoralized about where I am now and where I need to be by November the 15th, but I am not quite ready to ratchet my goal back and do the 8K that day instead.  We will just have to wait and see how things go.

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     You are in kindergarten and you have just colored the most spectacular picture of your short artistic career.  You can barely contain your pride as you gather up your courage to show your teacher.  You know she is going to love it and you can already taste the special treat she will bestow upon your from her “special drawer” to reward you for all your hard work. Here it comes, wait for it, wait for it……

     “My, how interesting.  But why did you color the pumpkin yellow with red stripes?  A pumpkin is orange,” she says, handing the offensive artwork back to you with a slightly upturned nose.

     Ouch, that hurt!

     Today was just like that for me.  I was feeling a rare high as a forty-plus year old woman. I had just received the compliment that brings a smile to the face of any woman over the age of twenty five. I was helping one of our “fresh out of college”  new teachers become acclimated with our school when she notices a VCU coffee cup sitting on my desk. 

     “Oh, did you go there?  My father graduated from VCU and so did I!”

     I casually remark that I did not go there but my oldest son is a freshman this year.  She is genuinely shocked.  “Wow, you have a child old enough to go to college.  I can’t believe it.  I hope I look as good as you when I am your age.”

     I could have walked on water for the rest of the day.  I went into the restroom several times, not to perform any toiletry tasks,  just to study my face in the mirror.  Not too bad, Not too bad. I smile and give myself a mental pat on the back.  Later in the day I relay the compliment to my husband and anyone else who will listen.

     After dinner that evening I turn on my computer to check my e-mail and find a message from a friend of mine; she has found a website she wants me to check out.  She tells me she stumbled upon it when she was googling for ideas about cooking for busy moms.  Sounds harmless enough, right?  If only!  I click on the link and as I read I begin to feel smaller, and smaller, and smaller.  Remember the teacher’s abonishment of my yellow and red pumpkin earlier in my post?  Well, it’s that kind of moment.  This woman is hot, way hot.  And, she is a fitness model and she is the mother of six children!  Granted, she is younger than I am but that does nothing to placate me. I question wether or not I should even share this site with you now; Dare I share my feelings of inadequacy with you unsuspecting readers?  But I must, for I am not strong enough to suffer alone.  You may want to make sure your husband is out of the room and then don your sunglasses in order to shield your eyes before you visit the site of this fit at thirty plus mother of six and looks better than I ever have or ever hope to will be mom.

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     This past spring a friend of my husband’s wanted to run the Monument Avenue 10K but didn’t want to do it alone.  He enlisted my husband to run with him and for several weeks he showed up in our neighborhood on a regular basis, stealing my husband running coach for a run through our neighborhood.  Now I will admit that I was a bit jealous at first; I usually don’t have anyone to run with and am hitting the pavement alone most days.  They didn’t ask me to join them, so I just looked pitiful and went ahead and walked my Jack Russell terrier, Nikki, while the two of them ran together. My dog is pretty energetic and I have no doubt she would walk ten miles a day if I let her; she is the perfect running mate.  So while my running coach husband went off with his human running partner, my canine companion clocked the miles with me. 

     Eventually they acknowledge my desperate plea for attention and asked me to join them but by this time my stubborn steak had set in and I refused their offer, citing excuses about being “too slow to hang with them” and “they probably wouldn’t be willing to stop so Nikki (the dog) could do her bathroom business. I think I wanted them to beg me but they let the subject drop quickly and set off for their run.

     Day after day they ran and I walked the dog.  My walks got faster and longer, but calling it “training” would be a huge stretch.  When the time came to register for the race I asked my husband to register me as well.  I couldn’t stand being left out of the fun!  On race day I was super psyched and a little nervous.  I hadn’t “run” further than three miles in several years and had not really done any serious training to prepare for the 10K.  Comforting as always, my running coach husband assured me that I could walk part of the way if I needed to and that he knew I would have no trouble at all finishing the race.  Still, I had my doubts. 

     Thirty thousand people were registered for this race and I was just a drop in the bucket.  My running coach husband and his friend were starting the race well in front of me, not even visible as I took my place in the sea of people and began the excruciating wait.  The runners were released in large groups, with the fastest runners in the front and the “ain’t even trying to pretend I am gonna run this thing” runners walkers in the back.  I was near the back.  It seemed like an hour went by as group after group of runners took their mark and were released to begin their run.  Finally, my group moved up and I looked around thinking, “What in the world am I doing?”  It was too late to turn back now and so I wished the people on either side of me good luck and we were off.

     My pace has never been a strong point for me and that day  was no exception.  I ran fast, then slow, then walked, then ran, then jogged-all the while thinking that I cannot believe I am actually doing this.  Suddenly a group of runners dressed in Fruit of the Loom costumes sprinted by and were quickly followed by a comical version of Hugh Hefner and the “Girls Next Door”.  (Oh, did I not mention that part of the appeal of this race is the tradition of dressing up and running in costume?)  Nothing more humiliating let me tell you, than being lapped by a person dressed in a gorilla suit and chasing people in banana outfits.  But I kept plugging away at it, looking desperately for the mile markers so I would know how far I had come and how much farther I still needed to go.

     Somewhere around mile three I began to cross paths with people who were already finished with the race and were walking back to meet loved ones.  That, too, was demoralizing but onward I went.  The race course traversed a beautiful area of town known as “Monument Avenue” and in the grassy area that separates one part of the road from another they had live music set up to “inspire” the runners to keep going.  Somewhere between miles four and five, it began to drizzle.  I welcomed the cool drizzle as a pleasant distraction until the drizzle turned into a downpour.  Suddenly it was not so pleasant anymore but I was committed to finishing.  As the miles ticked off and the crowd thinned I noticed some people were even running it a second time just for the “fun of it”.  I started looking for my running coach husband and his friend.  I felt sure that I would see them; I knew that they would have had time to finish the race by now and trusted that they would come looking for me, making sure that I wasn’t passed out somewhere on the course.

The last mile was tough both physically and mentally. I silently berated myself for not having prepared for the race and swore to myself that this time next year I would be kicking some forty year old butt and taking names.  For now, however, I just had to make it to the finish line.  As I drew near I spotted my husband running coach and friend standing right beside the finish line.  I locked eyes and tried to pickup my pace, finishing with a little more zest than I had shown over the last few miles.  I didn’t think to even look at the clock to see my time, I just celebrated in the knowledge that I had finished.  Luckily they had a website!  Finish Time 1:08:01

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