Oklahoma leaders battle obesity, target sugary soda

TULSA - Within six years, experts anticipate Oklahoma will have the highest obesity rate in the nation.

From super-size cups of sugary soda to soda cans, some political leaders are declaring war on fizzy drinks.

"Obesity is the only public health issue in this country that's getting worse," said Michael Bloomberg, New York City Mayor. "And everybody's wringing their hands, 'I've got to do something about it.' Nobody's doing anything about it!"

Mayor Bloomberg made headlines in 2008 when New York City banned trans fats in restaurants. Now the mayor is targeting soda after learning Americans consume at least 22 teaspoons of sugar a day. It adds up to an average of 75 pounds of sugar a year per person.

"If you want to act irresponsibly, as long as you're only doing it to yourself, that's up to you." Bloomberg added. "What I will say, in New York City we estimate we have a $4 billion cost of dealing with obesity, and the public is picking up that tab."

State Representative Rick Brinkley doesn't think banning sales of soda over 16 ounces would ever pass in Oklahoma.

"Especially when it comes down to personal choices people make while in their homes or while shopping," Brinkley said. "That's not the role of government, that's personal responsibility."

Victoria Bartlett, wife of Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett and spokeswoman for GetLean Tulsa , agrees.

"But I do believe it's the role of government to get the message out there, to inform people what's good and what's bad," she said. "Simple things you can do to improve your health."

She and the mayor are spreading the word of good health with the city's GetLean Tulsa program. Based on former Mayor Kathy Taylor's Tulsa Million Miles healthy and fit initiative, the city has expanded the program into community activities and online support with diet advice, meal planning and even recipes.

"It's a full resource for anyone who wants to start taking care of their body and logging," Bartlett added. "And it's all free!"

Oklahoma's obesity problem has the state ranked near the bottom in the nation for health. Experts warn the Sooner state will lead the nation in obesity by 2018. The potential loss of productivity and rising healthcare costs have some area employers stepping into the wellness arena.

Businesses across the country are working to tackle the problem by offering exercise options to employees. The Wellness Councils of America report finding some form of health promotion program in more than 81 percent of businesses with more than 50 employees.
Corporate wellness programs have been linked to higher productivity, fewer sick days and better morale.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oklahoma built a state of the art gym for employees at its downtown Tulsa offices.

There is an exercise physiologist on staff, as well as a wellness coordinator, a public health nurse and others dedicated to employee wellness. The gym is a popular place at lunchtime and during breaks.

"They encourage us to [exercise] during our breaks so it's kind of silly not to take advantage of it," said Kim Miller, BCBS employee. She has lost 30 pounds by improving her diet and starting a running routine. She admits she's gained ten pounds back and now plans to tackle that challenge again.

"Started out running one minute, walking three," Miller added. "And now I just signed up today for a marathon!"

BCBS employee Pam Vanmeter told 2News she has lowered her body fat by six percent.

"And my blood sugar and my cholesterol dropped like 12 points," Vanmeter said. She also connects lower stress levels to the workout program.

"I sleep a lot better. Used to have problems with sleeping," she said. "I don't have that problem anymore."

More than 70 percent of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oklahoma employees now participate in the company's wellness program.

However, that was not always the case. BCBS wellness coordinator Stephanie Brown noted some initial resistance when the health care provider first offered a weight loss program.

"Once you explain what it really is that you are doing, you really explain the confidentiality -- that people are not going to be holding you to a certain accountability because of your weight, they're not going to be looking at your report to see what you weigh -- once they understood that they were very supportive of it," Brown said.

To make participation easy, BCBS employees can track their activity online from their company computer. There are also programs for exercise and weight loss, as well as diet and meal planning.

In the cafeteria, the company posted signs on soda vending machines to remind employees that sipping one can of pop means swallowing 16 teaspoons of sugar. The goal is a gentle reminder without mandating employee choices.

"If you

want it, go ahead -- we're not going to take it away," Brown said. "But at least they know when they make that decision that's what they are going to get."

The firm's overall goal is raising awareness by making healthy choices easier. From the vending machines filled with numerous healthy options to the blood pressure check station in the corner of the cafeteria, investing in wellness is paying off for Blue Cross Blue Shield and other local companies.

As for mandating good health choices across the country, Brown believes Oklahoma's mindset will have to change to truly battle the bulge.

"We have to start addressing our stress levels, our work-life balance and really try to get to the heart of what's going on -- especially with Oklahoma," Brown said. "We are always at the bottom of the health rankings and I think our culture is what has got us there."

"It's just one step at a time; get out there and do it," Miller suggested. "Start with 15 minutes."

Success stories like these may be a small sign of change in Tulsa.

Victoria Bartlett points to other progress, too. Community gardens are planned across Tulsa to provide convenient -- and free -- fruits and vegetables to Tulsa residents in need.

In north Tulsa, Bartlett says a "Wellness Ministry" is working to start soccer and basketball leagues to get children moving. She hopes that, one day, the city will even earn a national certification as a healthy and fit community.


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