Obesity rates are climbing, but hope is coming in Wisconsin


Mariah Ruehle, a 20-year-old criminal justice major at UW-Eau Claire, is making an effort to eat healthy on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017. The student has made a commitment to healthy eating and regular exercise while in school. © 2017 Taylor Pomasl

By Taylor Pomasl and Elizabeth Gosling

Mariah Ruehle goes out to parties, treats herself to ice cream after writing a long paper and sprawls out on the couch to watch Netflix.

The 20-year-old college student, however, made a commitment last summer and hasn’t turned her back on it since.

Mariah Ruehle, a 20-year-old criminal justice major at UW-Eau Claire, is making an effort to eat healthy on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017. The student has made a commitment to healthy eating and regular exercise while in school. © 2017 Taylor Pomasl

The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire criminal justice student decided to become fit and now goes to the gym daily.

“My goal for myself is to feel confident in my body,” Ruehle said. “I’m not the slim girl. I’m strong and I look muscular. Now, from working out, my legs have bulked up a bit, but they aren’t fat — it’s muscle and you can tell now, whereas before you couldn’t.”

Ruehle spends between two to four hours each day at the gym, doing a variety of activities from leg and glute exercises to tricep and bicep conditioning depending on the day. Every time she goes, however, she works on her ab strength.

Since summer, 5’ 7” Ruehle has lost 12 pounds and is working at a personal goal to stay under 150 pounds. In the past, she’s struggled to stay below that weight and wants to change.

People like Ruehle, according to research from the nationally-run State Obesity Project, make up the majority of the state who are classified as having a healthy or normal weight. Obesity, which affects one-third of Wisconsin’s population, triggers an array of other problems. These include heart disease and diabetes, and it is more common in the U.S. compared to any other country according to Susan Matthews of Everyday Health, an online resource to educate about health-related issues. If not addressed, more people could be at risk for severe health problems. Ranked as one of the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) highest concerns, obesity’s course in Wisconsin, as well as Eau Claire, is on the rise. However, people like Ruehle are taking steps to combat the disease and move toward healthy lives.

The above map shows the range of percentages for obesity for each U.S. state. Wisconsin ranks 23rd for obesity. © 2017 State of Obesity Project

Looking through a state lens

Nick Beltz, an assistant professor of kinesiology and director of the exercise physiology laboratory at UW-Eau Claire, said this puts Wisconsin “in the middle” of the nation in terms of obesity. Wisconsin ranks 23rd in the United States for the highest obesity, right behind Georgia and Alaska which tied in 20th place and Kansas, which ranks 22nd. According to the State of Obesity Project, Wisconsin’s adult obesity rate is currently 30.7 percent, up from 19.4 percent in 2000 and from 11.8 percent in 1990.

“Generally speaking, we’re continuing to trend up for obesity,” Beltz said.

Zooming in on Eau Claire, Wisconsin

Eau Claire is mirroring state numbers. According to Beltz, over the past 10 to 15 years, obesity rates locally have been increasing. Its rate sat under Wisconsin at 29.2 percent in 2013.

Nutrition looks at the different compounds in food that make up a person’s overall health, Beltz said.

The above chart shows the rate of obesity in Wisconsin from 1990-2016. Obesity is caused by a culmination of factors, such as the level of poverty or crime in an area. © 2017 State of Obesity Project

Determining obesity requires looking at weight in terms of body fat, as opposed to muscle mass gained from exercise. The disease, which is related to problems in the heart as well as diabetes, is measured through Body Mass Index, or BMI. This measure is not the most accurate, as it measures all mass, whether it is fat or muscle, but Beltz said it is reliable enough to give doctors and researchers the data on an individual’s health.

Every two years, the city conducts a Community Health Assessment that allows health care providers and city departments to collect data regarding health issues in the Chippewa Valley. The most recent report was released in March 2015.

“Obesity was defined as one of the top health priorities for our community,” said Susan Krahn, a public health nutritionist for the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.

A complicated epidemic

Obesity is a “multifaceted” problem, Beltz said. A more obvious factor is the amount of food we’re eating in comparison to the energy we exert moving around, he said.

“We eat about 200 calories a day more than we used to,” Beltz said. “That’s not a ton — a couple pieces of bread. What we’re doing a lot less is moving around.”

As a researcher, Beltz uses NEAT, or non-exercise activity thermogenesis, to determine movement done during the day that isn’t exercise. He said exercise is purposeful movement in period of at least 10 minutes at a time to gain health benefits.

“It’s structured and purposeful,” Beltz said. “Rather, NEAT is simply moving throughout the day – standing up. We have less NEAT than we’re used to, and we exercise a little bit less.”

However, it isn’t merely caloric intake or lack of exercise that contributes to Wisconsin’s obesity rate. Other significant factors include the poverty or crime levels of an area. Beltz said if people have lower socio-economic status, they are less likely to spend extra money for healthier foods. Rather, they settle for a cheaper option.

Ruehle, who has committed herself to living healthier, does not always have the money to buy fruits and vegetables because they are more expensive. When bills are due once a month for electricity and internet, she said she is not able to spend the extra money she makes at her mentoring job to buy healthy foods.

People are also less likely to go outside for a walk if they fear harm.

“How likely are you to go outside and walk if you fear for your life whenever you leave your house? Not likely,” Beltz said.

Krahn said another big reason for the obesity rates is the high price of quality healthcare.

“Thinking from the community level, there’s always the factor of healthcare costs,” Krahn said. “Obesity, down the line, often leads to chronic diseases which then requires instant healthcare intervention, generally.”

Further, Beltz said urban areas and larger cities, like Milwaukee, are even more likely to see obesity, because they often don’t have the infrastructure available to allow for adequate physical activity.

“If you look at Eau Claire, there are biking trails and paths to walk and opportunities to go out in parks,” Beltz said. “In larger cities, there aren’t a lot of opportunities to bike or walk places.”

Steps in the right direction

Comparing Eau Claire to smaller communities, Krahn said it depends on the size of health departments and the available resources. However, she said the need is across the state, and finances and programs should be allocated everywhere. Programs like WIC, which stands for Women, Infants and Children, advocate for healthy living and shopping, which make up key aspects to fighting obesity in the nation, she said. The program is a grant from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Krahn said there are many local efforts to decrease obesity rates as well. Krahn is a member of a community group called “Eau Claire Healthy Communities,” that is working to increase the distribution of healthy foods through farmer’s markets and marketing programs called “Veggin Out.” This a program that aims to help people eat more vegetables instead of processed foods. Through the program, there are cooking demonstrations in public locations.

Gym-goers try out the array of equipment available on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. Anytime Fitness, located on Water Street in Eau Claire, is often full of students looking for a gym close to campus. © 2017 Taylor Pomasl

“(With Veggin’ Out) right now, we do media outreach promoting farmers markets, but then it’s been actual presence at the markets, and we have cooking demonstrations,” Krahn said. “Community members who are there are encouraged to try new foods and see how they’re made, kind of as an educational component.”

Beltz said outreach programs designed to educate about healthy eating and exercising and get people in better touch with what it means to be healthy is another important step. Giving knowledge about obesity in general can help prevent it, he said.

“What it is, what causes it, and what are the repercussions of obesity from a preventative health standpoint,” Beltz said.

The gym was full of over a dozen gym-goers on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. Anytime Fitness is one gym in Eau Claire available 24/7. © 2017 Taylor Pomasl

Eau Claire is also home to infrastructure, like walking and biking paths, and over a dozen gyms that offer the required infrastructure and support needed to maintain an effective exercise schedule.

Paul Wilson, a personal trainer/coach at Anytime Fitness in Eau Claire, said when helping people, he wants them to focus on one sole objective, rather than multiple at a time. He said it’s easy for people to get overwhelmed when combating challenges and be doubtful.

As a trainer, he works with people who want to change, but he said the first step calls for individuals to want to make the effort to change.

“We’re creatures of habit,” Wilson said. “It’s not a quick thing, especially if you’re coming with a habit where you haven’t been exercising your whole life or haven’t been eating well your whole life. Be aware that it’s going to take time.”

It’s a slow process, Wilson said. People in the community have to be OK and accept seeing slow progress.

There are many aspects to being healthy, Beltz said. Obesity, like all diseases, decreases all levels of health, including physical, mental, social, emotional and spiritual health.

UW- Eau Claire senior Paul Wilson demonstrates a typical rowing exercise to work arm muscles on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. The personal trainer says his passion for exercise started as a hobby, but he’s now hoping it’s his future career. © 2017 Taylor Pomasl

“I think healthy is kind of this word that stems from a meaning of wholeness,” Beltz said. “So to be healthy means to be whole. And if you’re looking at something and you’re inferring that you’re whole, that means that there are pieces that make up the whole.”

He said physical health can interact with mental health to an extent because they all interact with each other, and if a person’s health is lacking to a certain extent, then it can impact other aspects of their overall well-being.

“If you’re not physically healthy, that’s going to impact your social health and if you’re not socially healthy, then it can impact your emotional or your intellectual health,” Beltz said.

Despite challenges, Krahn said obesity is one of the most fixable problems in the United States, as long as the people are willing to try.

Although Ruehle hasn’t been ashamed in public because of her body, she said because of exercising, she has become happier and more confident.

“There is a lot of people who say that if you don’t work out, you’re fat and unhealthy and that’s not true, Ruehle said. “As long as you’re confident in your body, own it and be happy.”

When fighting the temptations to skip a day, she said having a group helps and holds her accountable to exercise.

“When I’m working out,” Ruehle said, “I think about how strong I’m getting and how fit I am going to look.”