When compared with other North Carolinians, Robeson County residents are more obese, more likely to smoke, more likely to drink alcohol in excess and less likely to exercise.
All that is according to a study recently released by the University of Wisconsin and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The 2013 County Health Rankings showed 26 percent of adults in Robeson County smoke cigarettes, 41 percent of adults in the county are obese, 39 percent of the population are physically inactive and 9 percent of Robesonians drink excessively.
That placed Robeson County dead last out of 100 North Carolina counties in health behavior.
When other factors were considered — clinical care, social and economic factors and physical environment — the county’s overall health rose to 97th out of 100 counties. Neighboring Columbus County was 100th, Halifax County was 99th and neighboring Bladen County was 98th.
The three healthiest counties in the state were, in order, Wake, Orange and Watauga.
Robeson County ranked 98th in the report in 2012.
“The improvement in the ranking is minimal,” said Melissa Packer, assistant health director at the Robeson County Health Department. “We still have an ongoing issue in the county.”
Robeson County ranked 99th out of 100 for clinical care, 98th for social and economic factors and 75th for physical environment.
Clinical care includes information on the number of people without health insurance, preventable hospital stays, diabetic and mammography screenings; social and economic factors inlcude college education, unemployment, children in poverty, inadequate social support, the number of single-parent households and violent crime; and physical environment rankings use information ranging from daily pollution, drinking water safety, access to recreational facilities and number of fast-food restaurants.
The study showed that 27 percent of Robeson County’s residents don’t have health insurance, 13.9 percent are unemployed and more than half of the county’s dining options — 55 percent — are fast-food restaurants.
“A lot of contributing factors come down to personal decisionmaking,” Packer said. “Most people think, ‘That’s the way my mom did it, so I’m fine with doing it.’”
Packer said the Robeson County Health Department has home-visitation programs and clinical services that educate people on how to improve their health.
“It’s difficult to get some of the participants to want to change,” she said. “We have to help them understand the reason for change — that’s the battle we have.”
Diabetes and heart disease — both of which are linked to diet and obesity — are big killers in Robeson County.
“Chronic disease here is like a family tradition,” Packer said. “Unhealthy lifestyle habits are major contributors to these diseases.”
Kathy Hansen is program director for the Southeastern Wound Healing Center, and writes a health column for The Robesonian that encourages people to get off the couch.
“I think it’s the education to know what exercise is,” Hansen said. “A lot of people have jobs where they do physical work, so they think they get enough exercise — but that’s not the case.”
Hansen said exercise can be fun if done with friends and family. She said the county’s poverty rate, among the highest in the state, is not an excuse.
“You don’t have to have a gym membership, because then there’s that financial barrier,” she said. “I do stuff on my own. People can walk, bike — just getting out and doing something.”
Setting aside 30 minutes for exercise each day is a good starting point, Hansen said.
“If people would plan their exercise, that would be great,” she said. “The best time to exercise is in the morning. Knock it out in the morning right before you go into work.”
Pattie Ramsaur, the clinical nutrition coordinator at Southeastern Regional Medical Center, said Robesonians need to change their eating habits.
“As a whole, we are very dependent on sugar,” Ramsaur said. “Sweetened beverages are taking precedent, and people are cooking with a lot of fat in their food.”
Ramsaur said the problem is also how much people eat.
“We’re not paying attention to our portion sizes, and many times if we look at the labels, we would be surprised as to how much a portion actually is.”
She said local residents would be wise to grow and then consume their own fruits and vegetables in backyard gardens.
“That could make a really good alternative and could add to enhancing our lives,” she said.