[Ken Kifer's Bike Pages]
ARTICLE: Southern Stroke Belt!
A report in the newspaper pointed out that strokes are much higher in the South and said that scientists were baffled about the cause. I wasn't baffled at all; our lifestyle and our lifespan are firmly tied together.

How does the South compare with the rest of the US in regard to strokes? What part of the South has the highest stroke rate? What kinds of foods are popular in the traditional South? Do Southerners enjoy aerobic exercises? What sports are played in the South? Are Southerners usually thin? Is overweight cause solely by genetics? Are the roads dangerous or difficult for bicycling? What does the typical Southern bike look like? Do Southerners understand bicycle terminology? How fast are bikes ridden in the South? What will have to happen for Southern health to improve?


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Southern Stroke Belt!

Last evening on my twenty-mile ride, I stopped for a drink and noticed a newspaper heading by the above name.

In case you missed it, it seems that the whole deep South (except for Florida, which has become a Yankee state) has a much higher incident of strokes than the rest of the country. And along a stretch between the Blue Ridge and the sea (mostly in the Carolinas), the incident is twice as high.

The article said the researchers were puzzled.

Well, I'm not, except I wonder why that belt is worse than anywhere else in the South. It probably has just remained more Southern!

In the traditional South, hog fat is cooked in with every food and included in every meal. Vegetables are boiled a long time with large chunks of fat, or they are fried in grease (green tomatoes, okra, and sometimes squash). Almost all meat is fried, often dipped in batter and dripping with grease. Extras include French fries, corn dogs, hush puppies, and hash browns. The favorite "salad" is slaw, more grease than green. My international students reported that they would throw up after eating in the cafeteria (I never could stomach it either).

Southerners don't believe in aerobic exercise. If I ever see someone on a bicycle, the poor soul is trying to save energy over walking (and is moving at about the same speed). Bike shops survive in the South mainly due to mountain bike sales; they ought to call them sidewalk bikes here; only young people buy them and use them on the sidewalks. If you're a gentleman, you don't expect a women to have to walk to the car; you bring the car to her. Thirty years ago I watched a girls' basketball game; there were ten girls in each team because they were forbidden to run! They passed the ball from one court to another. Fortunately, that policy has changed.

While football is the #1 spectator sport, the most common participation sports are golfing and baseball. In golfing, the players use carts and never lift the golf bag or walk a hundred feet while going around the holes. In baseball, which is much less common, the players chew good stroke-producing material and get no useful exercise until they suddenly have to sprint. Of course, most people do not engage in these too strenuous activities.

The beer belly is a common Southern feature. My understanding is that fat is actually pushing the guts out of the body cavity. Most women don't show beer bellies, but they are as heavy, on the average, as the men. When I was a kid in school, everyone used to laugh at me because I was thin! Years later when working construction, I was given advice several times on how to fatten up! Because I'm thin, Southern women seldom find me attractive, but I have the opposite problem.

Some have argued that the cause for the heft is the nature of different kinds of people. But, while I know we're not all the same, I don't believe there is any genetic reason why almost everyone is overweight in some areas. At the University of Alabama, on the other hand, out of 21,000 students, there was not one fat coed anywhere (some were struggling though). As I travel around the country, I notice I pass through "thin" areas and "fat" areas; that is, places where most people are thin and places where most people are heavy. Weight is more connected to culture than it is to genes.

Southern roads are a dream to ride on. Last night, I rode twenty miles and was passed by fewer than twenty cars! While drivers are still fairly ignorant about cycling, they are generally tolerant; I mainly have to watch for dumb mistakes, such as someone turning right after having just passed me. The woods come right up to the roads. Fences and no-trespassing signs are rare; I can stop and go hiking anywhere. The weather for nine months a year is outstanding. The poor months? June, July, and especially August. Early November (Indian summer) is the most delightful climate anywhere, usually. December, January, and February do include rotten days, but there are nice days as well, with temperatures up to the 60's and 70's. Actually, we are usually tickled to get a little snow. Since I am a teacher, the summer is a good time for me to ride my bike north. The terrain in Alabama is ideal; mainly flat roads, but some good hills or small mountains close at hand to build strength.

Southerners have excuses why they don't ride. Many people here claim that they would ride bikes except for the hills. What hills? Most of the roads are flat and are well sheltered from the wind by trees. Another excuse is the traffic. What traffic? I wish they could see the Amish and Mennonites riding their bikes in Michigan and Pennsylvania, where there is traffic.

While bikes are rarely seen, the typical Southern bike is a joy to behold. The vast majority of bikes are refugees from Kmart and Walmart that have stood in the rain for years. Everything not painted is covered with rust (you wonder how the chain even manages to turn), the brakes are rusted solid, the spokes are so loose that you can watch them wiggle as the wheel turns, and the ten-speed has been a one-speed for the last twenty years (usually in the small-small combination). The tires are so cracked and under-inflated that you think the rider must travel on the rim. Of course, the college kids are getting brand-new chrome-moly mountain bikes, but they treat their bikes the same way their parents do, so we know what they'll look like in a few years.

Don't use exotic terms with these bike riders. They don't understand "derailleur," "sprocket," "chain rings," "shifters," and the like. Some of them don't recognize that their bikes even have brakes and gears or how those things are supposed to work.

Now you might think these people are incredibly stupid. Not at all! Look around the garage in a suburban home: everything except the bike is in good repair. In the country, the fellow riding a collapsing bike will take a carburetor apart and repair it within twenty minutes. The smartest person I ever knew rode a bike with both wheels in the grave (although he wasn't a Southerner).

Nor are they too weak to ride their bikes faster than a crawl. Strength is very much prized in the South, and men know how to work hard. But running? Taking walks? These are foreign ideas, although the men do go hunting in the fall. Women are more likely to go for walks than men, usually strolls, but they get much less exercise otherwise. TV "aerobics" have become popular among the young women, but not aerobics. Men who feel the need for exercise always lift weights.

If you're a Southerner, you might think that I'm saying these things because I don't like Southerners. There was a time in the past when there was a strong hostility towards Yankees or liberals, and I wasn't happy then, but those times have changed. Southern people are now as tolerant as anyone else and more friendly than most.

I would love to be able to convert these people to a more healthy lifestyle.

And that's really the whole issue -- lifestyle. Their bikes are in deplorable condition because they wouldn't be caught dead on anything that looks nice. A $20,000 car is cheap, and a $200 bike is outrageous. They don't exercise because their culture doesn't include it.

Nationally, I see favorable signs. When movies, TV programs, and ads depict a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise, you know that the fitness movement has been extremely successful. Unfortunately, kids are getting less exercise than ever before. In the South, the number of adults exercising has increased, so I still hope. They might have to abandon the Southern lifestyle before they'll really be healthy.

Perhaps, in the end, that's what it'll take. Already, the Southern accent is mostly extinct (found mainly on TV shows). But, I would like to see stronger signs of change in the more important areas of health and environment.

NOTE: In the year 2000, I have seen no signs of improvement. The local woods is being torn apart by four-wheelers, and I seldom see anyone on a bike. A few of the neighbors walk. The South leads the nation in heart disease, with Mississippi having the greatest amount. Another report says that Mississippi leads for obesity, citing fried foods and cooking with bacon, while a report I heard on the radio this morning says that Alabama leads the nation for obesity and diabetes. Georgia is the most sedentary state in the nation, with more than half claiming no physical activity.

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