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Interactive: Physical Activity & Health in North Carolina – County Data

North Carolina’s men seem to be doing better than the state’s women in getting exercise and improving their life expectancies over time. And while all of North Carolina’s counties saw increases in obesity over the past decade, fewer men are obese overall than women.

This new data comes from a large study of trends in health outcomes in every county of the U.S. done by researchers at Seattle’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

The data showed that obesity and lack of physical exercise, along with smoking, are leading in some locations to actual drops in life expectancy (bottom maps).

To use the map, click on a county to see how many women or men in the county are obese and how that has changed over time.

Obesity Rate in Women by County (2001-2011)

Obesity Rate in Men by County (2001-2011)

In North Carolina counties, both men and women became increasingly obese over the past decade, according to the data, and more men joined the ranks of obese over the past decade than women: a 6.7 percent increase in the number of obese statewide for men compared to a 6.3 percent increase for women. Yet, overall, women have higher rates of obesity in many counties, as shown by more red counties on the map for women than for men (the same scale was used to create the color gradient in both maps).

To use the map, click on a county to see how many women or men in the county get sufficient physical activity and how that has changed over time.

Rate of Physical Activity for Women by County (2001-2011)

Rate of Physical Activity for Men by County (2001-2011)

Rates of physical activity among women grew at a rate of 5.3 percent statewide, while only 1.7 percent more men got moving between 2001 and 2011. Still, the data show that throughout the state men remain more physically active than women overall.

To use the map, click on a county to see how the life expectancy for women and men in the county has changed over time.

Change in Life Expectancy Over Time, Females, by County (1985-2010)

Change in Life Expectancy Over Time, Males, by County (1985-2010)

Finally, researchers took a look at life expectancy over the past three decades. Many observers have noted that this generation of children may have shorter life expectancies than their parents. That is true for women in at least eight North Carolina counties, where life expectancy for women has dropped over the past 35 years (red counties) or remained stagnant (orange counties).

North Carolina’s men have seen tremendous improvements in life expectancy. In Wake County, in 2010, men are expected to live, on average, 7.9 years longer than they were in 1985. Overall, men have had greater gains in life expectancy than the national average, while women’s life expectancy has increased at a slower rate than the country as a whole (2.6 years of additional life expectancy for N.C. women compared to 3.0 additional years nationwide).

The researchers found that in 2010, physical inactivity and low physical activity accounted for 234,000 deaths. On top of that, low physical activity also contributes to people being less healthy at the end of their lives, living with more disability and disease.

“Our results call for focusing on a message of the health benefits of physical activity instead of a means for weight reduction,” the authors wrote.

These results were published July 10 in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal Population Health Metrics in two studies — “Left Behind: Widening Disparities for Males and Females in US County Life Expectancy, 1985-2010” and “Prevalence of Physical Activity and Obesity in US Counties 2001-2011: A Road Map for Action.”

They used data gathered via the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey (BRFSS), an annual survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in conjunction with state health departments. The survey gathers data on behaviors and conditions that can place people at higher risk for chronic disease and injury.

Because BRFSS data are self-reported, the researchers also used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) to help adjust for the bias people have in reporting their weight and amount of physical activity. NHANES data are also self-reported, but the study includes a physical exam where information such as height and weight are collected.

The data are available for download at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation website.