Barbara Lingerfelt walked easily Friday on a treadmill at the Shuford YMCA in Conover.
Her breath wasn't strained; she talked comfortably; and she wore a smile on her face. For Lingerfelt, exercising is part of a daily routine 40 years in the making — eating right, working out and taking care of her body.
Those are habits more people in Catawba County are adopting, according to a recently released national study. Catawba County ranks 18th in the list of healthiest counties as outlined by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
"It's a lifestyle choice," Lingerfelt said of her decision to exercise several times a week and make healthy food choices.
Just as Lingerfelt said, healthy living is about making smart decisions in many aspects of life, and the county health rankings took that into consideration. The study was based on many different factors, including the rate of people dying before age 75, high school graduation rates, access to healthier foods, air quality, population levels, income and obesity rates.
Those factors combine to determine each county's rank among other counties in the state.
"It's hard to lead a healthy lifestyle if you don't live in a healthy community," said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. "The County Health Rankings are an annual check up for communities to know how healthy they are and where they can improve. We hope that policy makers, businesses, educators, public health departments and community residents will use the rankings to develop solutions to help people live healthier lives."
Catawba County ranked in the top 25 percent for counties with the best health outcome, which takes into consideration premature death rates, low birth weight and reports of poor or fair health.
The county ranked 27th out of 100 in the county's overall health behaviors, which include rates and occurrences of adult smoking, obesity, excessive drinking and sexually transmitted infections.
Twenty-one percent of adults in Catawba County report smoking more than 100 cigarettes and currently smoke. About 27 percent of the county's population is considered obese, and 13 percent report excessive drinking.
According to the study, 17 percent of county adult residents reported fair or poor health, which is slightly better than the state's 18 percent. About 8.5 percent of Catawba County's babies are born weighing less than about 5.5 pounds, which is considered a low birth weight.
More than 9 percent of babies born in North Carolina are classified as having low birth weight.
Although Catawba County scored in the top 33 healthiest counties for almost all factors in the study's health rankings, the county faired poorly in the physical environment category.
Catawba County ranks 83rd of 100 for factors relating to the county's physical environment, including access to healthy foods, air pollution and access to recreational facilities. The study's data revealed that there are five recreational facilities per 100,000 people. Statewide, the rate is 11 per 100,000 people. In the United States, there are 17 recreational facilities per 100,000 people.
Wake County received the honor as the state's healthiest county, while Columbus County ranked 100 — last — in the rankings.
The rankings, according to experts, reveal a national trend that points to many different factors contributing to an individual's overall health.
"The rankings really show us with solid data that there is a lot more to health than health care," said Patrick Remington, director of the County Health Rankings Project. "Where we live, learn, work and play affect our health, and we need to use the information from the rankings to shine a spotlight on where we need to improve, so we can take action to address our problems."
The national rankings revealed that unhealthy counties have:
-Significantly lower graduation rates;
-Twice as many children in poverty;
-Fewer grocery stores or farmers markets;
-Higher rates of unemployment.
Nearby county rankings out of 100
Source: County Health Rankings Statistics