Prescription for Mississippians: Eat less, move more

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 3, 2009

Four words: Eat less, move more.

If you are an average Mississippi man, woman or child, you filled 15 prescriptions in 2007.

According to the Kaiser Foundation, that’s three more than the average American.

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We’re not hypochondriacs in this state. And Lord knows we’re not wealthy.

But, on average, we are fatter than others, have more diagnosed cases of high blood pressure and, surprisingly, are rated second-highest in “sedentary lifestyles.”

Probably the No. 1 way of dealing with high blood pressure is to take a pill. But especially in milder cases, an alternative is to eat healthier foods and exercise.

The people who need to read this will stop now, thinking it’s another lecture exhorting the benefits of chomping raw broccoli, buying some Spandex and joining a fitness center.

It’s not.

It’s about simple stuff we can do for ourselves — to feel better and, if that’s not motivational enough, to save money.

Kaiser reports that in 2004, the average Mississippian paid $2,119 for hospitalization, where the average American paid $1,931. And, because our per-capita income is lower, the higher hospital tab has a more profound impact on our wallets.

All those pills we took in 2007 cost $2.34 billion — or $807 per Mississippian, paid by us, our insurance companies or our fellow taxpayers.

The kicker statistic is this: Nationally, overall health-care expenses are rising at a rate of 7 percent a year. In Mississippi, charges by doctors, hospitals, nursing homes, pharmacies and every component in the health-care dollar are rising faster — at 8 percent a year. (It seems all the savings from the governor and the Legislature stopping “lawsuit abuse” a few years ago have yet to kick in.)

So if we’re already paying more for health care and using more than other Americans and the prices are rising more quickly, it follows that there’s no place where people could benefit more from a few adjustments.

An expert’s view is available from Dr. Dan Jones, chancellor of University Medical Center and contributing author of a February article in the Journal of the Mississippi State Medical Association. Dr. Jones, a world-class researcher and past president of the American Heart Association, can still cut to the chase.

“If Mississippi is to improve its rates of hypertension (high blood pressure), Mississippians will need to move more and eat less,” Dr. Jones wrote, adding candidly, “It is simple. It is not easy.”

One of the reasons it’s not easy is the incessant TV commercials for workout devices or food plans. A picture of a plump lady is followed by one of her in a bikini. Men lose a rim of flab and develop six-pack abs in 30 seconds. Some bite on the ads and try sudden, whole body makeovers. The vast majority change the channel, or go make a sandwich because they’re honest enough to know they can’t make that kind of commitment.

What the commercials don’t tell you and Dr. Jones probably would is that conditions leading to heart disease and stroke (two of the consequences of high blood pressure) develop over a long period of time and the secret — if there is one — is to establish a level of fitness over a long period of time and maintain it.

A person who hasn’t done a pushup in 40 years doesn’t need to start doing 40 every morning. A person who hasn’t walked a mile in 20 years doesn’t need to jog 20 every afternoon.

The people who need the most help — and could derive the greatest benefit — are those for whom the walk from the bedroom to the kitchen is the most strenuous exercise they get.

Change will come incrementally, not instantly. Major change can come with minor effort.

And progress is being made. In the article, Dr. Jones reports better blood pressure management has been an important contributor to the recent rapid decline in age-adjusted death rates for coronary heart disease and stroke.

Speaking of contributors, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has given Ole Miss $2 million to study childhood obesity prevention policies in the state. It will include how the 2007 law that reintroduces PE as an elementary school requirement in the state’s public schools translates to the general health of children and, incidentally, whether it improves grades.

People aren’t cars, but there is an analogy. Left idle, our tires go flat and our hoses clog. It’s not necessary for us to run in Talledega form to stay in shape. But we have to do something, and it can be as simple as eating a little less, moving a little more.

If we don’t do it for ourselves, or, as the saying goes, for our loved ones, maybe we can do it for our wallets or purses.