Poverty and Obesity; thoughts from a personal trainer working with low income clients through a foundation doing good work in our rural communities

In becoming a Certified Personal Trainer, I spent many hours in class learning how to help clients with their dietary and exercise needs.  I studied subjects like portion control, calorie intake, and how best to encourage people to increase their exercise.  However not one class addressed the correlation between poverty and obesity.  Google search “diet” and “exercise” and you will see there is no shortage of available information yet we can’t deny the number of obese people is at an epidemic proportion.  66% of our population is either overweight or obese.  However, that number is proportionally higher in lower income families. One might think that people with low incomes would not be obese because they can’t afford extra food, but the opposite is true.

Typically, the diet of low income clients includes mostly foods rich in fats and processed ingredients because they are relatively inexpensive.  In low income neighborhoods  convenience stores and fast food restaurants are easily accessible while supermarkets that offer access to affordable fruits and vegetables are harder to find.

In many rural communities poor eating habits have been handed down from generation to generation. If grandma doesn’t serve fresh produce, then the grandkids won’t eat it.  You’ve heard perception is reality, well the perception of fresh fruits and vegetables among many rural communities is it’s “rabbit food”. Some believe that because there is lettuce and tomatoes on their burger or fruit in their yogurt that they are eating enough fruits and vegetables.

Many Americans believe that produce will not fill them up or sustain them throughout the day.   The reality is produce digests slowly and can keep you feeling full longer.  Its true fresh fruits and vegetables are expensive but one alternative is cheaper, heavily processed foods. On the surface less expensive appears to be a better choice if you are on a restricted income, but you may end up paying the same for a larger portion of something that’s not very good for you.

Take this scenario.  You go to your favorite fast food restaurant with five dollars.  You can buy a salad OR you can buy a double cheeseburger fries and a drink.  Seems like an easy choice.  We all want more for our money and enough food to sustain us throughout the day. This is a choice many people face daily…some for more than one meal.  That they choose the double cheeseburger and fries is compounded by the fact that many impoverished families depend on the food bank. That can make menu planning difficult and the fast food fare an easier, quicker choice.

Low income women face a number of unique issues that must be addressed BEFORE they can actually start a diet and exercise program.  Transportation and childcare are huge obstacles for people in poverty. Limited to mass transit and isolated in a rural community, clients have little or no access to exercise classes or gym equipment they need to lose weight.  There is no room in their budget for a gym membership or even simple equipment for home use.

Another factor affecting the low income is sustainability.  With many food sense and exercise programs coming and going, low income clients face a constant end in what they are just beginning to learn and get help from. When you need to lose 100+ pounds, a program that lasts ten weeks just isn’t enough.  Clients need the security of a yearlong program (or longer), to help them reach their goals. Many families hoard food staples like rice and noodles because of this feeling of insecurity.  Many have other health issues such as diabetes or heart disease and many have physical limitations like bad knees or a bad back.

There is help available through a quiet foundation started by a Spokane psychologist. The Denton Foundation provides a Certified Personal Trainer (myself!) to help modify diet and exercise habits and challenges of people who can’t afford such a service. The foundation offers classes that combine nutritional information and physical activity. It also provides transportation where needed and it offers something invaluable to mothers of young children…free childcare!   Many clients have more than one preschooler making it impossible to attend a class when you pay per child.

The Denton Foundation was created to meet each of these challenges by providing personal trainers to facilitate classes in low income neighborhoods.  There are currently three class sites; Spokane Valley, Medical Lake and Sprague.  The foundation is looking to add a fourth in Airway Heights.  The groups have all been meeting for more than a year with great success not only for those looking to lose weight, but for those who want to prevent weight gain. Classes are modified to account for physical abilities as well as disabilities.  For instance, one member lost a leg to cancer and is confined to a wheelchair, but that doesn’t stop her.  “I never thought I could exercise.” She says. “Now I have no excuse.”  “I’m simply a better mother”, another reports.

The foundation simply helps low income women tackle the many obstacles they face whentrying to take care of themselves. Other Foundation goals include starting more classes in other rural towns and working with local food banks to develop a cookbook that takes food bank staples and turns them into a healthy meal.

Anyone looking to join a class or who would like more information please contact me, Jill Sheffels, at 979-2168 or jsheffels@hotmail.com


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