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County among fittest in U.S.

You want the skinny on San Luis Obispo? Just look around.

San Luis Obispo County is the fifth “slimmest” — or fifth least obese — region in the nation, according to a recent study of 187 metro areas.

The San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles area has an average obesity rate of 17.6 percent — much lower than the national average of 26.5.

The local rate is also far lower than the average obesity rate of 33.8 percent for the 10 most obese metro areas.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to be categorized as obese, and man or woman must have a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher, meaning a 5-foot person would have to weigh at least 153 pounds; a 5-foot-6-inches person 186 pounds, and 6-foot person 221 pounds.

The Gallup organization calculated BMIs using respondents’ self-reported height and weight during phone interviews with 353,000 American adults in 2009.

Kennedy Club Fitness instructor Barb LeMoine said she was not surprised by the high ranking. “Look around. We are surrounded by a huge playground,” she said of the ocean and trails that residents access conveniently in good weather year-round.

“Having the healthy choice be the easy or default choice” is one of the best ways to prevent obesity, according to Cal Poly kinesiology instructor Ann Yelmokas McDermott, who directs STRIDE: Science through Translational Research In Diet and Exercise. She said local parks and recreation infrastructure provide affordable access to pools for exercise, and “beautiful” produce is available and relatively inexpensive all year.

As part of the same study, Gallup found that the San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles metro area also placed seventh on a healthy behavior index measuring exercise, eating and smoking habits and 25th on an index measuring access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables, having a safe place to exercise, having enough money to buy food and having health insurance.

Local communities have long emphasized healthy living. In 1990, San Luis Obispo became the first city in America to ban indoor smoking in public places.

Kathleen Karle, health promotion division manager for the county Health Agency, and Los Osos family physician Patrick Vaughan said that high education rates are also strongly correlated with lower obesity.

“If we know what will hurt us, we won’t eat it,” Karle said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of San Luis Obispo County residents that hold a bachelor’s degree or higher is 30.4 percent, 3 percentage points higher than the national average.

A misleading ranking?

“San Luis Obispo keeps getting ranked really high, and everyone thinks we don’t have an (obesity) problem,” Karle said. “There are pockets we’re doing really terribly at, like, Oceano, San Miguel, unincorporated areas and even in the cities.”

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that, nationally, obesity rates are higher among low-income and minority populations.

McDermott said the Gallup findings for San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles might be representative more of people with enough money to own phones, as well as whites.

According to the California Health Interview Survey, 84.5 percent of the county was white in 2007. Of that group, 17.5 percent were obese, while 21.1 percent of Latino and African-American populations (combined) were obese in the county in the same year.

A changing shape

Vaughan added that, across all populations, San Luis Obispo County is experiencing an obesity epidemic. According to the CDC, less than 10 percent of adults in California were obese in 1990. Using that statistic and Gallup rankings, local rates would have increased by 76 percent since then.

And the Gallup poll does not mention people who are overweight with a BMI of 25 or higher. According to CHIS, 49.1 percent of the county was overweight or obese in 2007, compared to the state average of 57.1.

Also, Vaughn said the obesity rate among children is increasing at a faster rate than obesity among adults. According to McDermott, an assessment in 2006 of 622 3- to 5-year-olds enrolled in preschools in San Luis Obispo County found that 28.8 percent were either overweight or obese, and high weights before age 8 are strong indicators for obesity in adulthood.

McDermott said, “I don’t want people to rest on our laurels here in our county. Although we may have healthy behaviors, something is going on if so many children are overweight and obese.”

She is working with the Central Coast Ag Network to bring healthy food options to local schools.

Karle said what health agency officials are fighting against is the idea that “we’re doing so well that there’s nothing else we can do.”

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