ATLANTA - Living in the country has its advantages, but new research shows people in rural areas aren't as healthy as their urban counterparts.
53-year old Sandra Harrington, from tiny Mt. Zion, Georgia, spends her days in the warm pool here at Sportsplex in Carrollton, teaching water aerobics for people with arthritis.
"I've been here 16 years," Harrington says. "I joined 18 years ago."
Harrington figured the gym would help her lose weight.
"And then, over the 16 years I've been here, I was slowly gaining weight," she says. "And, I'm like, 'I'm exercising, why am I not losing weight?'"
Harrington knew she had to get healthier, and she's not alone.
A recent CDC study found Americans who live in rural areas are more likely to die of heart disease, cancer, respiratory illnesses, stroke and even accidents than people in cities.
There are many factors at play, researchers say.
People in rural areas are more likely to smoke cigarettes, have high blood pressure, and struggle with their weight.
They're also less likely to have health insurance.
Tanner Medical Group internist Dr. Amy Eubanks says that survival gap may also come down to a lack of access to care, and the habits we pick up.
"There are certain things that Southerners hold sacred in the way that they cook," Dr. Eubanks says. "And I think fried chicken is never going to disappear from the church picnic."
And Eubanks,who practices primarily in Harralson County, says cost is an issue, too.
"This is a very poor area," Dr. Eubanks says. "And it's a lot cheaper to eat off the value-meal menu than it is to cook a meal."
Sandra Harrington got help from a community-based Tanner Health System diabetes prevention program called "Get Healthy, Live Well."
"I learned that I wasn't eating right," she says. "Things I thought were healthy were not healthy. Because there were all these hidden fats in all that food."
Dr. Eubanks says the community classes like the ones Harrington is part of are essential.
She encourages her patients to make small lifestyle changes that will add up.
"Change a few specific things you can do and hold yourself accountable for," Eubanks says. "A lot of times I'll bring a patient back in earlier because I know the accountability of, 'We're going to discuss this. We're going to recheck my cholesterol. Or we're going to recheck my weight,'" Eubanks says.
That gradual approach is working for Sandra Harrington.
She's lost about 50 pounds.
"My energy level has soared," Harrington says. "I don't have to sleep 12 hours a day. When I sit down, I don't fall asleep."
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