Sweating it out

Justin Edwards (right, in the red shoes) directs the YMCA Rumble class at the recently relocated Oxford facility on Wednesday afternoon. A recent prominent ranking set Calhoun County a little better than it used to be in terms of residents' overall health.

Calhoun County has improved its health, but still might want to skip dessert.

The county rose to 29th from 37th this year among Alabama’s 67 counties in a ranking that aims to measure health. Factors from fewer uninsured and preventable hospital stays, to improved high school graduation rates, helped the ranking. But the county also had a better ranking simply because other counties did much worse. Meanwhile other important factors like obesity, physical inactivity and childhood poverty didn’t improve.

Some medical professionals and fitness experts say education, economic opportunity and better nutrition programs are keys to improving the population’s health and that work is being done in the county and state to make that happen.

The ranking was released Wednesday by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

The annual county health rankings report includes dozens of health statistics and other data to assess communities’ health, such as unemployment rates, poverty and premature deaths. The latest report compiles statistics from 2016 and earlier years.

Calhoun County saw improvement year-over-year in certain measurements, like the rate of uninsured, high school graduations and air pollution. Other measurements showed increased rates of adult obesity, physical inactivity and children in poverty. The county’s ranking is lessened by the fact that Alabama typically stands among the least-healthy states, based on national studies of rates of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Dr. Monica Baskin, a professor in the division of preventive medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said the state’s problems with health issues like obesity are more symptoms of social and economic issues.

“There are individual actions people can take like eating the right things and getting enough physical activity, but beyond that, a lot of health is influenced by where you live ... your income, poverty level, education and access to health care,” Baskin said.

The county’s ranking still jumped despite certain poor health factors, because other counties did even worse, said Ericka Burroughs-Girardi, spokeswoman for the county health rankings project.

“It’s because other counties might not be moving as quickly as you are in terms of improvement,” Burroughs-Girardi said of the county.

She said the county’s premature death rate jumped out to her as a cause for concern. The report showed the rate was stagnant, year-over-year.

“While it’s not getting worse, it isn’t getting better, so that’s something you want to pay attention to,” she said.

Burroughs-Girardi said the growing number of children in poverty in the county should also be a concern. Burroughs-Girardi noted that the number of children in poverty is still a national problem.

“Children deserve to have a healthy start, but when you’re growing up in poverty, you have less access to education, playgrounds, safe neighborhoods and healthy foods,” she said.

Rhonda Mann, deputy director of the child advocacy group Voices for Alabama’s Children, said children in poverty struggle in every aspect of their lives, including health. Mann said the state does have its federally funded All Kids program to provide health care for all children regardless of ability to pay.

“But having coverage does not equate to having access,” Mann said. “We have lots of rural areas in the state with insufficient access to care ... and many people do not have adequate or reliable transportation.”

Mann also said many poor Alabamians and their children also live in food deserts, areas with insufficient access to healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. Instead, much of the food available to them is heavily processed, a contributing factor to obesity in the state, she said.

To address the issue, Voices helped persuade the Alabama Legislature in 2015 to create a healthy food planning initiative — a revolving loan fund that incentivizes food retailers to open in rural areas, Mann said. The Legislature has added $500,000 to the fund in the last two years, she said.

Robin Brothers, center director at the Anniston Aquatic and Fitness Center, said the city’s Parks and Recreation Department has started several programs in recent years to help improve community health. Last year, the department earned a grant from the National Recreation and Parks Association to provide nutrition education and recipes to parents and to buy better equipment to serve greater quantities of healthful food during its summer programs for children.

Brothers said the department this year is starting a program to help improve walking and activity for people with arthritis. In a few weeks, the department will also start a program to encourage children at community centers to become more active through walking, running, hiking and other activities.

“We’re trying to be proactive and look out for new and different programs for all ages,” Brothers said.

Ann Angell, fitness director for the YMCA of Calhoun County, said the organization has pushed to have the latest in fitness classes and as such, has seen such programs grow in popularity in recent years. Angell said the YMCA currently offers about 40 fitness classes a week between its Anniston and Oxford locations, each with between 15 and 40 participants.

“You hear a lot of people saying they’re there to get healthier ... most really want to lose weight,” Angell said. “And some are pre-diabetic and want to change that with exercise instead of with medication.”

Angell said the classes are a good way to help people to reach their fitness goals.

“People like coming with friends and connecting with new people ... that’s good motivation,” Angell said.

Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.