catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 7 :: 2013.03.29 — 2013.04.11


Poverty and health

A personal journey

I was born into poverty in rural east Tennessee.  Growing up our family relied on social welfare programs like visits to the local health department, food stamps, free or reduced lunch at school and state medical insurance.  Because making ends meet for a family of six required more than the minimum standards of government assistance could provide, we also relied on local charities to help put food on the table and clothes on our backs, and to keep our utilities on.  We got by.  We survived.

Being an adult and now living just over the national poverty line for the last few years, I’ve learned to adopt a healthier lifestyle.  With this perspective, I see how growing up as I did created and exacerbated a plethora of health problems that I now have to deal with at great expense and debt.  Living in the midst of a lifestyle overhaul while on the other side of poverty has taught me that it’s now my responsibility to make sure everyone knows how accessible a healthy lifestyle is, regardless of budgetary restrictions. 


My Journey

As a twin, my sister and I were born prematurely and each with a variety of health issues.  Straight from the gate, I had respiratory issues that later developed into asthma and chronic bronchitis.  Environmental factors in our home like excessive dust and both parents smoking around us made things much worse.  Though public awareness of the dangers of second hand smoke was on the rise in the 90s, my parents just didn’t believe it.  Unfortunately, this type of ignorance and resistance is prevalent in rural, impoverished families. 

Because I had such a hard time breathing, exercise was more challenging for me, so I didn’t participate much.  The sedentary lifestyle I had adopted made me slightly overweight as a child and teenager.  I always had about 30 pounds to lose, but I just couldn’t do it.  I tried being active, and I played basketball with the local recreation league because my family couldn’t afford to let us participate in school-sponsored sports.  But then I became injured.  When I initially went to the doctor about my knee injury at 12 years old, our doctor wouldn’t refer me to a specialist for further care.  The doctor told my parents I was just experiencing growing pains.  After five years of painful knee-locking and an increased inability to walk, my doctor finally referred me to a specialist.  I spent six months in physical rehab trying to repair the issue, and then I had to have surgery.  By the time I graduated high school, I was easily 50 pounds overweight. 

I had my knee surgery two weeks before starting college, so I started my first year on crutches.  Aside from having to hobble around on a hilly east Tennessee campus, being in college should have been great for my health.  I wasn’t living in a cloud of smoke anymore, and the college cafeteria offered fresh fruit, veggies and salad every single day.  I’d never had so many good options for food choices in my entire life.  However, because I was so accustomed to cheap, processed foods, I usually disregarded the healthy offerings on our cafeteria’s endless buffet line, which certainly didn’t help my waistline.  I graduated college and spent a year in a graduate seminary program.  I had a great academic education, but I was still making poor health decisions when it came to my diet and lack of exercise. 

By 25 years old and at 5’4” tall, I weighed 230 pounds.  I was wearing a size 2X top and size 18-22 pants.  I had developed severe enigmatic digestive issues that only resulted in overwhelming medical debt and a mistrust of medical professionals.  On top of all of that, I was struggling with depression.  Around that same time, I saw a picture of myself from a friend’s wedding; I was shocked and could barely recognize myself.  So I got a dog and started walking with him every day.  With that minimal increase in daily activity and reducing my portion sizes, I lost 70 pounds in about 18 months.  Then I started toggling; I gained and lost the same 20 pounds at least four times, and I still had digestive problems. 

At 27, I started practicing yoga and rejoiced at finally finding a challenging activity that I could do regularly.  Yoga has enabled me to make friends with my breath — something that had been an adversity my whole life.  It taught me to be compassionate with myself.  It taught me to ask what it means to love myself.  I learned through yoga that what I was eating and why I was eating were not healthy for me. I started developing better eating habits, and consequently, a new relationship with food.

I’m still doing yoga, and because it’s made me so much stronger and confident in my physical ability, I started running.  Since last summer, I’ve participated in several 5Ks, an 8K and a 10K, and this April and May, I’ll be running in two half marathons.  I’m not competitive, and I run embarrassingly slow, but I’m moving and doing things I never thought I’d be able to do.  Each time I run a little farther or a little faster, I get more inspired and motivated.  The mindfulness I’ve picked up practicing yoga helps me stay in touch with all of the changes I’m going through right now, and each workout I power through gives me feedback on whether my diet is successfully meeting my body’s needs or not. 

I’ll turn 30 this August, and I really hope to reach my “100 pounds lost” goal by then, but I’ve also learned that the number on the scale is not always indicative of health or fitness.  I’m now wearing medium or large tops and size 12 pants, so a lot of my weight is actual muscle.  Moreover, I am leaps and bounds more fit than I’ve ever been in my whole life, which is much more important than my body size or appearance.  As far as my health goes, my mysterious digestive issues are now minimal, and I have a handle on my depression without relying on expensive medication.  The only thing I’m still battling is the medical debt from having gone through these experiences, which is fodder for a whole different article.

Looking back on my life, I’d say that access to healthy food and exercise just isn’t possible when your primary focus is on making ends meet.  My lifestyle changes have all happened since stepping over the poverty line, so it seems that my own personal journey supports that perspective.  But I have to admit that access to health education is really where we need to focus.  Technically, I am “educated,” but I didn’t learn any of these lessons in my middle school health class, high school PE/Wellness or the required college PE/Wellness class. 


A call to action

Having lived in poverty, I relied on the classic excuse of not being able to afford the fresh fruits and veggies and gym memberships, yoga classes or sports fees.  And I think that’s exactly where we need to start.  We need to let the poorest people in our communities know that shopping at the local farmer’s market is often cheaper and better for us than shopping in the grocery store.  We need to put the poorest people in touch with donation-based yoga and Zumba classes or barter-exchange fitness programs.  We need to give the impoverished around us access to donated running shoes and workout clothes.  We need to make sure our food banks are stocked with healthy options instead of just the basic staples of a processed diet.  Programs like these exist on both national and local levels, but people who live in poverty will likely never know about them because they think they can’t afford to live healthier, so they never consider it. 

Making small scale, individualized, local-community changes for the impoverished will absolutely have larger, systemic results.  Connecting people in poverty with an affordable way to live healthier lives could put a dent in our national obesity epidemic as well as help prevent avoidable, expensive medical issues caused by environmental and lifestyle factors.  But for any of this to be possible, the “haves” need to be looking for, finding and reaching out to the “have-nots” because what keeps the have-nots in their unhealthy lifestyles is not knowing they have other options. 

Seek out the poor where they are, and instead of overwhelming them with information or pamphlets, show them how affordable and accessible a healthy lifestyle is.  Speaking from experience, poor people may take what charity we can get just to survive, but we have a lot of pride, too; so it’s important to show us how easy it is to do on our own.  And if affordable and accessible healthy lifestyle options simply don’t exist (like in rural nowheresville, east Tennessee), then that’s exactly where we should start.  I can’t think of a better way to create a life-long, positive, systemic, generational change with community activism than getting people together to learn how to live healthier, free of financial burden; now that’s gospel. 

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