Louisville is fat. I tried to find out why. This story appears in the January 2012 issue of Louisville Magazine.
It’s still dark when Chris Cooper, 52, steps out of her house in west Louisville. It’s a Saturday morning in September, and she is Market Street’s only pedestrian, striding past the lime green Get It candy store, with its hand-made sign announcing, “Now Ecepting Credit + Debit.”
A block behind her house, a man carries a scarred baseball bat to walk his dog in the moonless predawn. Cooper does not bother with a weapon. She will walk where she wants to walk, when she wants to walk, and will fear no evil. She is out there every morning on the weekends, and every evening during the week, walking.
Cooper, swaddled in layers against the morning chill, is six feet tall and given to gospel-sermon soliloquies in which her natural contralto soars to a helium-tinged soprano. Her voice dances through the lower end of her register as she explains her motivation to become a dedicated walker. “The obesity rate is ridiculous. Then I went to the doctor. He had the nerve to tell me I was obese. ‘Chris, as bad as that sounds, you would be considered obese.’
“Well, I got an attitude,” she growls, “a real bad attitude. ‘Cause I’m thinking I’m cute!” she says, sliding to the top of the scale at the word “cute.”
“And I’m overweight!” She’s breaking glass.
She’s certainly not alone.
I wonder which of Louisville neghborhoods is home to the leanest residents? Highlands? Crescent Hill? I’m slim but always had to watch my weight. Moving to the Highlands in 2000 was followed by an immeidate improvement in my fitness level – I took up running and when I wasn’t running in Cherokee Park, I was walking my dog or biking, working out in my garden or strolling up and down Bardstown Road. Highlands offers lots of healthy food options, too, which I took advantage of, often on foot. I started riding the bus while l living there as well. Probably the fittest, leanest period of my life and nobody ever accused me of starving myself. After relocating to another city 5 years ago, we took up residence in a suburband neighborhood and I’ve gained a few pounds, but mostly lost muscle mass. I know it is largely an issue of how this community is set up. Nothing to walk to, no public transit, poorly lit streets. I bike commute now in order to build more activity into my day and reduce my car dependence, otherwise I’m sure that I would be at least another 5 pounds heavier.
I also agree with the Big Mama theory. My mom told us when we could have a snack and it usually was something reasonably healthy of her choosing. She did not keep an open pantry. If she decided the TV needed to be turned off she would turn it off (and she did this almost daily). We weren’t allowed to just stay inside all day doing nothing. The only good reason to be sitting was reading or homework. We had chores like mowing the lawn, cleaning the bathroom and helping her in the vegetable garden. We walked or biked to our friends houses; nobody drove us. Most of our meals were taken together as a family at a set time. We did have an advantage of family income that allowed for a pool membership and tennis, golf or soccor lessons – but those were budgeted for to keep up physically active more than anything else.
Great points, Karen.
Neighborhood walkability is definitely and issue, and I think that ties into the point made by the health department director. Public transportation gives you a reason to walk. When I lived in Boston, I either walked to a subway stop or walked to my destination. Streets lined with little shops made me want to walk more; there was so much to look at.
A lot of studies have point to suburban subdivisions as a contributor to obesity because they reduce opportunities for walking. You may be good about taking a daily walk through the subdivision, but imagine if everyone could walk to the corner store or coffee shop, instead of crossing five lanes of traffic to get anywhere.
Although obesity is scattered throughout the city, the urban neighborhoods are hurt the worst. The food choices are terrible and people worry about the safety of walking in their neighborhood. And then there’s the Big Mama Effect. I don’t have any data to back it up, but I find it compelling.