David Zalubowski  /  AP
Toby Head poses during a break in his workout at the Colorado Athletic Club in Denver on March 23. Head, who has lost 23 pounds to reach 299, moved to Denver three years ago.
updated 3/24/2005 7:36:31 PM ET 2005-03-25T00:36:31

For years, Colorado has been ranked the leanest state in the country with a reputation as a magnet for hard bodies who love the outdoors.

But over the past 15 years, the percentage of obese Coloradans has grown faster than any other state, except Virginia. Denver resident Toby Head illustrates the point. A trim 185 in 1990 when he left the Army, he’s now one pound shy of 300 pounds.

“I guess friends moved away and I found X-Box and decided to drink every night and play video games,” he said.

Colorado’s growing weight problem has alarmed health experts and grabbed the attention of state lawmakers, who are considering bills designed to encourage children to exercise and choose healthy foods and to include obesity treatment under Medicaid.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6.9 percent of Colorado residents in 1990 were considered obese. By 2002, the latest figures available from the CDC, that figure had risen to 16.5 percent.

“I still have an image of Colorado as this mecca for outdoor activities. It is a little surprising to see the obesity numbers increasing,” said Adam Hodges, a columnist for The Colorado Triathlete magazine who moved to Boulder 14 years ago to train.

Still the leanest state
For now, Colorado is still the leanest state with 47 percent of adults overweight or obese compared to 65 percent nationally (31 percent obese). Still, the state is seeing more people like Head, who found it easier to grab a couple hot dogs and a bag of chips for lunch than to find something healthier. And like many others, he gave up exercise for a sedentary life.

“We’ve created just the wrong environment for our bodies if we want to be lean,” said James Hill, who heads a nutrition and research center at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.

The problems by now are familiar: children with video games and TV instead of playing outside; adults working and shopping by Internet-connected computers. And everywhere are cheap, high-calorie goodies.

“We’ve basically engineered physical activity out of our lives,” said Hill, co-founder of America on the Move, a group that encourages weight-loss through walking and small calorie cutbacks.

“What we have to do here in Colorado is wake up to the fact we’re still arguably the leanest state but we’re going in the wrong direction,” he said.

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Migration to blame?
Migration from other states could be to blame. From 1990-2002, 1.87 million people moved to Colorado from other states; nearly 19 percent of that total — 349,402 people — came from the 10 states listed with the highest obesity rates in 2002.

Hill said the population boom attracted a “typical cross-section” of Americans, including the overweight. Among them was Head, who moved to Denver from Virginia three years ago.

Dr. Ned Calonge, the state’s chief medical officer, contends Colorado is still pulling in young, healthy people drawn by the outdoors.

“In New York or Chicago, you might meet around the water cooler and talk about the opera you went to,” Calonge said. “In Colorado, you talk about how great the skiing was or the mountain biking.”

According to a 1998-2000 study by researchers at RTI International and the CDC, about 5 percent of the $874 million in adult medical expenses in the state each year was due to obesity.

Obesity states

'I got tired of being fat'
The human costs are immeasurable, said Colista Lich of suburban Littleton, who lost about 170 pounds after gastric bypass surgery in 2003.

Lich, 41, told state lawmakers recently she was the “after photo, the success story.” In an interview, however, she said maintaining her weight is a constant battle against genetics, past eating habits and her loathing of exercise.

It’s easy to surrender, especially if embarrassment over obesity has led to depression that hurts motivation, said Lich, who came to the Denver area from Phoenix six years ago.

“It’s hard to be fat in these two cities,” she said. “Everybody wants you to ski or hike or mountain bike, so when you find yourself obese and unable to do those things, you’re kind of left out.”

As for Head, he joined a health club a few months ago when he hit 322 pounds. He’s working with a personal trainer.

“I just decided I got tired of being fat. Instead of sitting around drinking every night, I wanted to get out and play golf, go skiing, but at the weight I’m at now, it’s not easy to do those things,” said Head. “But it’s hard to change your life dramatically.”

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