A Tale of Two Cities: Fattest and Fittest Towns in America

Meet families in W.Va. and Vt. towns at opposite ends of the health spectrum.

Feb. 19, 2009— -- America's battle of the bulge is being fought to very different ends in two seemingly similar towns.

Huntington, W.Va. and Burlington, Vt. are both midsize college towns with similar median incomes, but a report by the CDC said that this is a tale of two cities at the opposite ends of the health spectrum.

Based on health data gathered by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, the Associated Press compiled the numbers and declared a winner and a loser: Burlington, Vt. took honors in the AP report for being the healthiest city in America. Huntington, W.Va., a town of 50,000 by the Ohio River, earned the dubious distinction of being named the least healthy city in America.

In categories measuring obesity, diabetes, heart disease and tooth loss, Huntington consistently came up short in the CDC's numbers.

The town's residents are not happy with the results. Many are angry that their hometown was singled out. But the members of Christ Temple Church took that dubious distinction as a challenge.

To make a point, the church choir stepped on the scales at a local truck stop and weighed in at 10,590 pounds. They challenged themselves to lose the excess weight -- almost a ton, by their estimate -- literally.

In Burlington, Vt., on the other hand, a quick walk around town tells a different story.

"I don't see much [obesity] at all. Not in the schools, not in the shopping malls if I get to one," said Katharine Montstream, 47, an artist and mother of three. "When I go to another part of the country I'm a little surprised sometimes."

It's not hard to see why. Even in the middle of winter, on a February day with the thermometer topping out at two degrees, Burlington was full of walkers, runners, even cyclers.

"You've got to get out there otherwise you get cabin fever. You've seen 'The Shining,' right?" Montstream said, laughing.

She and her family are exercise enthusiasts. Her husband, Alan Dworchak, is a ski coach. Their teenage son and daughter are ski champions. Even on that frigid day, Montstream and youngest daughter Sylvie went to the local golf course for a cross-country ski outing.

Winter in Huntington, however, can be a different story. On a day when the temperature was a full 30 degrees warmer than its northern counterpart, Michelle Isenberg and her family tried to avoid the cold.

Isenberg, 41, a wife and mother of three who home-schools her oldest son, Michael, said her first thought when she heard about the study was, "Yep, that's it. That's us."

"I like to run, I like to ride my bike, my scooter," Michael Isenberg said, but added, "It's too cold."

He said that in winter, the whole family will occasionally work out to a video game called TurboJam, but that his main exercise on days when he can't go outside is bouncing on a mini trampoline indoors.

Appetites and Infrastructure

Differences also can be seen in the way the two towns eat.

Huntington's main drag is a siren song of fast food restaurants. The AP report says Huntington actually has more pizza parlors than gyms.

Meanwhile, the only grocery store in downtown Burlington is a co-op chock full of healthy, locally grown produce.

Montstream's daughter Sylvie made a grocery list that started with "big carrots."

At City Market, the food co-op, Montstream pulled out her list, which consisted of "sprouts, Goddess dressing, broccoli, goat cheese, arugula, garbanzo beans, parsnips, squash -- the usual," she said.

She added that list is "somewhat typical" for Burlington, if not for the rest of the country.

Montstream's philosophy is the fewer ingredients the better, and she looks for local and healthy food choices, even though it can be expensive.

"You just have to look and compare," she said.

In terms of infrastructure, Burlington's downtown shopping district is closed to traffic, forcing shoppers to get out of their cars and walk. The town sits on Lake Champlain, a four-season playground, which abounds with outdoor exercisers.

"With Burlington, we have this amazing lake where we can swim, there's the bike path that people use all year round -- they cross-country ski on it in the winter," Montstream said. "I think we all get inspired by each other and how we eat and how we move our bodies and try to keep active."

Huntington, too, sits next to water, but the Ohio River is a more of a workhorse than a showhorse. Huntington's waterfront has less than a mile of walkable paths along the river bank. On a February afternoon, one lone runner went by.

Dr. Tom Dannals, a family practitioner known locally as an exercise evangelist, wants to make Huntington's riverfront more accessible to exercisers. He is trying to raise money to create the Paul Ambrose Trail for Health, or PATH, named after a beloved local doctor who was killed at the Pentagon on 9/11.

"We want to build a trail on top of the flood wall," he said. "If you live close to a trail then you'll use it. It sounds very simple, but it's absolutely true."

Dannals took "Nightline" on a driving tour of Huntington, pointing out that the town's infrastructure is not conducive to exercising outdoors. He pointed out that most roads have no shoulder for running or biking.

"It's dangerous out here," he said.

The underlying reasons for the differences in the health of the two towns may lie in economics, education and culture, all indicators that favor the Vermonters.

But the residents of Huntington consider the study a wakeup call and are vowing to make changes that will result in a better ranking next year.

'It's Cheap to Be Fat'

Michelle Isenberg is looking to change her family's eating habits after living in Huntington for six years. She said their cabinets used to be "stuffed with two or three bags of chips, and then we would have Oreos -- and there would probably be a couple of those little 90-cent packages of candy bars."

Now, the freezer is stocked with meat and frozen vegetables.

"To get fresh fruits and vegetables in this area is very expensive, so we have a lot of frozen vegetables," she said.

"It's cheap to be fat," she added. "It's expensive to be healthy."

Isenberg said she has also learned an important rule about the layout of grocery stores that she now follows: Shop the outside aisles.

"Fresh fruits and vegetables are on the outside," she said. "Your meats, your dairy -- I call it all the stuff that God created -- is on the outside. All the stuff that man created that sometimes isn't good for you is on the inside."

Back at Christ Temple Church, a large room has been outfitted as a gym, and two nights a week you'll find church members doing aerobics and weight training. They aren't proud of their moniker as the unhealthiest city in the United States.

As one member said, "I'm glad they pointed it out if it is true, because that alone is motivation to change."

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