Obesity, booze and sedentary lives reflect country’s worrisome health habits

Tim Skillern
Yahoo! News

Tiffany Bailey is tired of the “fat mom” label.

“I just want to be Tiffany,” she says matter-of-factly.

Her sedentary routine is her biggest obstacle to a healthy life, says Bailey, a 29-year-old Illinois resident and mom to three. Her job as a freelance writer means she sits five to 10 hours a day and, while she’s cut back significantly on her 12-cans-a-day Coke and Pepsi habit, she’s not in the best shape.

“I live in a rural town roughly 80 miles southwest of Chicago,” Bailey writes in a first-person account for Yahoo News this week. “There is not much to do out here, so getting enough exercise throughout the day is a challenge. I walk with my children around the community, but even that isn't enough.”

Sitting while working, she says, “has affected my ability to get up and move.”

After her pregnancies, her body didn’t slim back down; instead, she became 150 pounds overweight. She’s eating better now, she says, and she’s noticed a difference in her appearance from just two months ago.

View photos

“My insecurities about my weight have caused me to miss out on things I shouldn't have,” she says. “My kids deserve better, and so do I. I lost my own mother when I was only 8, and I don't want my babies to suffer the same heartbreak I did.”

Bailey’s story is representative of a significant finding in a study released Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association: While Americans are living longer — 78.2 years for the average citizen in 2010, up from 75.2 in 1990 — the country is not necessarily healthier.

“Morbidity and chronic disability now account for nearly half of the U.S. health burden,” the AMA concluded, “and improvements in population health in the United States have not kept pace with advances in population health in other wealthy nations.”

Americans lag behind other developed countries in key metrics: premature mortality, years lived with disabilities and a healthy life expectancy.

The United States, the AMA noted, has improved internally against those gauges in the past two decades, but that progress belies increased challenges on a variety of other health hurdles for which Americans are at higher risk: obesity, poor diets, high blood pressure, lack of exercise and alcohol use.

Those particular health concerns surfaced frequently this week in first-person accounts Yahoo News readers shared. We asked them: What is one health challenge you battle daily? How is that obstacle keeping you from being well? How are you fighting it? Do you expect to live a long — and, importantly, healthy — life?

Here are some more of their stories.

Drinking or junk food? How about both?

If it’s Saturday night in Peoria, Ill., James McClister has two choices: head to the movies or drink.

View photos

“Unfortunately, I find both activities equally enjoyable, so whenever I'm not simply drinking, I'm drinking at a movie theater,” McClister says. “Of course, you're probably thinking, ‘Well, that sounds pretty awesome;’ and it is. But such awesomeness sadly comes with a consequence: bad health.”

McClister, 25, says he’s challenged by a lack of self-control.

“Greasy pizza, chocolate bars, those long strings of cherry-flavored taffy, doughnuts and pretty much every flavor and brand of small cheesy crackers — my mouth is actually watering — if any of these foods are placed in front of me, or within a reasonable radius, I will devour them in the most literal sense of the word,” he says. “I will eat every crumb, empty every package. No junk food is beyond me so long as it's not actually beyond me.”

In his teens, McClister says, he’d sneak out of bed at night to find where his mom had stashed “these tube-like chocolate cakes filled with swirls of pure white cream,” and he’d bolt them down. His “high-octane metabolism,” he says, would assuage any worries of weight gain.

But now, as an adult, his piling the junk food atop the booze is taking a toll: “Alcohol is unarguably bad for you. It fattens you up, riddles your organs with all kinds of nasty things, hinders your memory — I think — increases your chances for a whole host of terrible diseases. As I'm writing this, I'm wondering how the stuff is legal. It's really just a bad substance.”

He’s noticed the unhealthy effects in his midsection, so he picked up running and became a vegetarian. Still, he says, “I fear it's only a matter of time before it all catches up with me.”

No sleep and too much Starbucks contribute to unhealthy cycle

When Kimberly Morgan’s husband is deployed overseas with the U.S. Navy Reserves or through his civilian job with the Defense Department, her poor sleeping habits emerge. Soon, she’ll notice the wrinkles deepening in her face and the thickening in her waistline.

View photos

“It's always worst when my husband is deployed,” the 42-year-old Florida mom says. “There's no one else around to help out, and once you lose a good sleep pattern, it's very hard to find it again.”

In her words, here’s how Morgan sees her own health hurdles:

Husband deploys in January. Kim immediately launches into a flurry of activity to keep herself mentally and physically occupied. This includes doing things like playing Words With Friends until she passes out from exhaustion or reading way beyond that. She reads in bed, so this helps.

By February, she's all funned out.

She makes a fresh pot of coffee at daybreak — that's 10 cups of high-octane awake by most folks' standards, but just barely makes our intrepid mom lucid. Should she have a headache or not sleep well the night before, she heads to Starbucks where she gets the sweetest, largest, most bad-for-her pick-me-up on the menu (venti white mocha, and sometimes with whipped cream, because, as she tells the barista, "You only live once, honey"). Six bazillion calories later, she's functioning on a normal level, able to do things like speak coherently and drive a car. By dinner, she's crashing, but Kim cannot afford to do this, because she has three kids and a whole night of homework, baths, jammies and bedtime stories to deal with, plus the laundry that didn't get folded when she crashed last night at 2 a.m.

Four months later, when her husband returns from Afghanistan, she’ll have gained 15 pounds, but won’t have recovered any lost sleep.

Life as a cubicle drone

Work is killing Justin Schmid. Well, sort of.

The 39-year-old Arizona resident says his job is too routine to be healthy: He sits, he eats, he commutes.

“My office job is, by far, the biggest challenge to living a healthy life,” says Schmid, who works as an editor at a Phoenix-area nonprofit. Because sitting all day (not to mention the sugary snacks his work provides) zaps his energy level, he’s sometimes too tired to exercise after work.

“I arrive at home with barely any desire to move,” he says, mourning all the workouts he’s forsaken that could’ve helped him shed those pesky 10 extra pounds.

Still, he’s trying, and because he does manage some exercise (the gym, yoga, mountain biking and running comprise his workouts), he’s stayed reasonably healthy. He uses his vacation to combat his sit-all-day lifestyle, opting to hike, walk and run while away from the office. And he’d like to work out more with barbells and kettlebells, and do more pull-ups and yoga. (Better yet, he notes: Commute via bicycle. But, he says, there’s that damn Arizona heat …)

Schmid doesn’t see himself as an optimist — “I'm not a glass-half-full guy about my kind-of-healthy life,” he says — and believes the deck is stacked against office workers: “Every day, I wish American corporate culture relied less on the 40-hour work week and better valued the benefits of a physically fit workforce. But that's not likely.”

Read more stories from readers about their health challenges:

Boosting my metabolism is my biggest challenge to a healthy life

Struggling to live a healthy life with a damaged spine

Pain from car accident is life-altering

Finding time to be healthy a seemingly impossible task

Diet misbehavior is biggest health hurdle