Maggie Murphy had struggled with her weight for years, but never really understood how serious her problem was until last January. That’s when a doctor looked at her 5’5, 187-pound frame and declared her clinically obese.
“That freaked me out,” said the mother from Highlands Ranch. “While I knew I was overweight, to my way of thinking, I wouldn’t have thought of people classifying me that way.”
Murphy is far from alone. Although 55 percent of Colorado adults are overweight or obese, many have a difficult time recognizing it.
Just half of Coloradans can identify an overweight or obese person, according to a statewide survey of 1,100 adults and focus groups of more than 100 mothers. The study was conducted by LiveWell Colorado, a nonprofit that fights obesity by promoting healthy eating and active living.
The number who could identify an obese child was even less – just 24 percent.
This is critical for the individuals’ health, because obesity contributes to heart disease, diabetes and high-blood pressure.
This is also critical for everyone else in the state, because the $874 million annual cost of caring for obesity-related medical problems is spread across the population through health insurance. Growing obesity is one major reason that health insurance is becoming too expensive for many people.
When LiveWell began the focus groups, “they thought of the term obese as someone who was really big – 300 or 400 pounds,” said moderator James Heichelbech.
Heichelbech didn’t start making headway with the initial groups until he confessed that his own Body Mass Index (BMI) placed him just shy of being medically categorized as obese. That proved to be a wake-up call to the people listening.
“Someone remarked that I didn’t look like I took up two airplane seats or struggled to get up stairs,” said Heichelbech, a senior research analyst at Denver-based HealthCare Research. “I look bigger, but I don’t look huge.”
“What got them was me saying [that because of my weight] I was at risk for heart disease and diabetes. Then they started thinking about people in their lives like me,” Heichelbech said.
Those findings inspired LiveWell’s $1.5 million ad campaign, funded by Kaiser Permanente and the Colorado Health Foundation. It features real people and asks viewers to judge whether they’re at a healthy weight, overweight or obese.
“The campaign was meant to show that’s its not that extreme,” said LiveWell spokeswoman Tracy Faigin Boyle. “For the average height person, if you’re 30 pounds overweight, that could put you in the obese category.”
The ads encourage viewers to figure out where they stand by visiting LiveWell’s website for a “gut check” and health behavior quiz. Site visits jumped from 4,500 to 28,000 per month.
“I had chills when I saw the commercial because it was so me,” said Murphy, an account executive with Comcast Corp.
After learning that she was obese, Murphy made drastic changes. She switched to smaller portions, began eating six smaller meals daily, rather than two or three large meals, and increased her water intake. The changes led to a 45-pound weight loss.
Murphy now serves as one of LiveWell’s “ambassadors” helping to spread the word. The organization also created a “Get Movin’ Mobile” that travels to events across Colorado to encourage activity, such as jump roping and hula-hooping.
LiveWell is reaching out to Hispanics, who have higher rates of obesity. In partnership with the Spanish-language television station Univision, the nonprofit is filming a “reality show” highlighting a multi-generational Hispanic family’s quest to become more active and change their eating habits. This show will air within Univision’s newscasts starting in late September.
“The obesity problem didn’t happen overnight and it won’t be solved overnight,” Boyle said. “We’re building the public will to demand healthier choices. It’s a lot like smoking – 20 years ago it was fine to smoke on an airplane or in a restaurant and now it’s not culturally acceptable.”
Colorado sports the lowest obesity rate in the nation at 19. 8 percent. But obesity is growing so quickly that only a third of Coloradans will be of a healthy weight just six years from now, according to data from the Colorado Health Foundation.