One of Colorado’s proudest assets has always been the health of its residents. Our outdoor amenities have provided a natural and accessible way for our people to get and stay fit, and by some measures—namely, obesity rates—we’re in significantly better shape than most of our neighbors.
But a new study from the Colorado Center on Law and Policy says that we may, as a state, run into trouble as we try to maintain that lead. The somewhat surprising reason isn’t that we’ve suddenly become couchbound or disinterested in physical activity; it’s our poverty rates.
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The study, Vital Signs: The Influence of Race, Place, and Income on Colorado’s Health, notes that even though our state still has the lowest obesity rate in the nation at 20.2 percent (as of 2015), factors such as race, where people live and work, housing quality, and access to nutritious food and health care are making our less fortunate citizens less healthy.
This downward momentum is at least partly reflective of national trends: While Colorado has long been the least obese state, our proportion of overweight people has risen sharply from the 6.9 percent we boasted in 1990. Back then, the heaviest state in the nation (Mississippi) had a 15 percent obesity rate. Today, there are 25 states with rates at 30 percent or higher, and the entire country is over 20 percent. The next-leanest state after Colorado (Hawaii) has a rate of 22.7 percent.
As Colorado’s population evolves from 25 percent nonwhite in 2000 to a projected 45 percent by 2040, the report argues that this will affect our overall health numbers, because nonwhite populations can be unhealthier due to income issues that, for example, can confine them to living in food deserts and restrict their access to quality health care. (Factors including genes and biology and health behaviors, the authors found, determine only about 25 percent of a person’s overall healthiness.)
The study’s authors contend that “income policies”—such as minimum wage laws or figuring out where to put a new supermarket—”are also public health policies.” That’s why our legislators and other decision makers must keep that big picture in mind when debating proposals that might allow poorer people to enjoy access to the places and activities (and the health benefits from that access) that the rest of us can more readily pursue.