Combating Obesity-Related Disease in Central Appalachia with Community-Supported Interventions

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Research Objective: On behalf of the Appalachian Funders Network, with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, East Tennessee State University and NORC at the University of Chicago documented the current burden of obesity, diabetes, and chronic disease mortality in central Appalachia. An analysis of county-level data was conducted in order to provide a picture of the health condition of the region. This study identified both the magnitude of obesity-related health problems in central Appalachia as well as promising practices, policies and strategies aimed at reducing obesity rates, especially among children.

Study Design: A mixed methods approach was used to assess the policies and practices that have a positive impact on the reduction of childhood obesity and chronic disease in central Appalachia (TN, VA, KY, WV, NC, and OH). Along with a literature review and analysis of national and regional health data, the study included surveys and focus groups of community members, practitioners and funders to identify the region’s current obesity prevention efforts. Activities were broken into (1) healthy eating, including promotion of policies and/or changes to the built environment and promotion of healthy food; and (2) physical activity.

Population Studied: The central Appalachian region ranks amongst the highest in the nation for percentage of obese high school students. There, children are disproportionately affected by rates of obesity by location; specifically, rural children differ from urban children, 16.5% to 14.4%, respectively, in prevalence of obesity. Focus groups comprising community members, practitioners and funders were held to obtain internal stakeholder input and secure community buy-in.

Principal Findings: Across central Appalachia, participants in the surveys and focus groups identified a number of recommendations to advance regional efforts to reduce obesity and improve the overall population’s health. Survey results indicate the most promising and prevailing nutritional practices comprise community-based, locally led support strategies spanning multisector approaches to endorse schools' feeding programs, community and school gardens, and farmers' market SNAP programs via co- investment and funding. Concurrently, promising physical activity promotion practices include stepping up community walkability, enhancing physical education requirements, expanding and revitalizing trails, tracks, playgrounds, gyms and other exercise opportunities within built environments.

Conclusions: This study provides evidence-based, promising practices to address obesity in rural communities. For long-term changes to occur programs that are successful need to be evaluated rigorously and shared widely.

Implications for Public Health Policy or Practice: Improving the local food and physical activity environment in a community requires participation of many dedicated partners. Government, the health care system, schools, private businesses and community organizations all have critical roles to play in this effort. Cross-sector collaboration creates local ownership leading to more sustainable programs that are valued not only by the foundations and grantees but also by the larger community.


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