A recent national study indicated that people who could afford to join a health club were more physi

January 3, 2012
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LANSING — People with a college education tend to be healthier than those with only a high school diploma, according to a recent national study.

Health and wellness professionals say the trend, also noted in a separate Michigan study, is because poor people don’t have easy access to recreational exercise, health care and quality food.

The study released in late November by College Board, an education advocacy organization, extended the benefits of a college education to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, better pay, job security, stronger family ties and a greater tendency to provide community service.

About 34 percent of people with only a high school diploma are obese, the study found. That’s compared to 20 percent of people with a four-year college degree. The study also found that the more educated people are, the more likely they will exercise, leading to better health.

The Michigan Department of Community Health found a similar correlation among the state’s residents, although the disparity is not as great as the national figures. The state agency’s 2010 Behavioral Risk Factor Survey found that 35 percent of people with only a high school education are obese compared to nearly 26 percent of college graduates.

Education level often drives incomes, said Amy Heydlauff, executive director at Michigan’s Chelsea-Area Wellness Foundation, a private group advocating for healthy community lifestyles. People with only high school diplomas may have less money and time for recreational exercise, which impacts their weight and health, Heydlauff said. Other health professionals agree.

“If you don’t have a job or you have to work two or three jobs just to try to make rent, you’re probably not going to have time to go work out,” said Ronda Bokram, a registered dietitian and staff nutritionist at Olin Health Center at Michigan State University. “I think we have to think about the social reasons why things might be different.”

But she cautioned that the national study was simplistic because comparing a person’s height and weight is not the best way to indicate health. People have different body types and genes and can be healthy even when a Body Mass Index — which uses height and weight — says they are overweight, she said.

Bokram said the rate differences had to do more with education. She said when college grads make more money than those without a degree, it allows them to have financial access to health care and dietitian services.

Access to healthy food is critical when looking at the obesity statistics, experts say. Residents in some areas often don’t have access to regular grocery stores and frequently buy their food from convenience stores, which usually don’t offer produce or food for a balanced diet.

“Although diet and exercise are key determinants of weight, environmental factors beyond the control of individuals often play a role, as well,” said Angela Minicuci, public information officer at Michigan Department of Community Health. “Lack of access to full-service grocery stores, high costs of healthy foods, and lack of access to safe places to play and exercise can contribute to increased obesity rates by reducing the likelihood of healthy eating and active living behaviors.”

Obesity rates are one of the health and wellness factors included in the Michigan dashboard, implemented by Gov. Rick Snyder to measure Michigan’s success in key areas like economic strength, health and education. The dashboard indicates that nearly 32 percent of Michigan adults and almost 12 percent of high school students are obese.

Snyder outlined ways he plans on combating obesity in his September message on health and wellness. He suggested working with farmers and grocery stores to expand access to fresh produce as one route to a slimmer state.

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