The image of farming as a healthy lifestyle, centered around a lot of body-toning outdoors work and exercise and home-cooked meals of fresh vegetables/fruits and farm-produced meats, is changing — and not for the better.

A growing body of evidence is showing that while rural residents were once better off than their city cousins in terms of physical activity, nutrition, and weight, they now generally fare worse with regard to obesity.

In a paper, “Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity in Rural America,” examining the effect of rural lifestyles on the health of rural Americans, The Center for Rural Affairs, in collaboration with Dr. Joe Blankenau, professor of politics at Wayne State College, Wayne, Neb., is evaluating crucial health care issues in rural America.

Tom Tai-Seale and Coleman Chandler conducted a comprehensive review of studies on nutrition, physical activity, and obesity and their impact on the health of rural residents relative to urban residents. The first of their reports was released this week. Among the findings:

• A national sampling showed 16.5 percent of rural children were obese, compared to 14.4 percent of urban children. The rural South had the highest levels of overweight (34.5 percent) and obese (19.5 percent) children.

• In a national study of adults, three out of five respondents were physically inactive. Rural residents were slightly ahead of urban counterparts in this category.

• Almost 42 percent of rural children report not participating in any after-school sports or activities.

• Forty-eight percent of rural children ages 10-17 report spending at least two hours per day with electronic entertainment media, slightly higher than the 47 percent of urban children.

The findings “should be alarming to rural residents,” the study’s authors say, since obesity is “second only to tobacco as a cause of death in the U.S., and might soon overtake tobacco.”

Obesity increases the risk of death by 1.5 times, doubles the risk of coronary heart disease, and is related to Type 2 diabetes mellitus, hypertension, stroke, and some cancers, along with a myriad of other health problems and a “significant emotional toll” felt by the obese in terms of stigmatization and discrimination.

Approximately $100 billion per year — 6 percent to 7 percent of total U.S. health care costs — is spent on obesity-related illnesses.

While there is no single explanation for the changes in rural obesity, Dr. Cornelia Butler Flora of Iowa State University notes that most of the widely-discussed factors relate to the modern rural environment.

“Forty years ago, half of all students walked or bicycled to school; currently that number has dropped to 15 percent,” she says.

While studies show that farmers still get more exercise than non-farmers, there has been sharp decline in the numbers of those in the U.S. who are actively engaged in farming and other outdoors occupations such as forestry and fishing.

The increase in off-farm employment and time demands for school/community activities have also resulted in less exercise and proper nutrition for farm families.

Get a copy of the report, along with recommendations for offsetting these trends, at http://www.cfra.org/09/01/healthreport.

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com