Health officials say that child obesity is rising faster in rural communities than anywhere else.

And new research appears to back that up, dispelling a long-held belief that in farm communities and other rural towns, heavy chores, wide expanses of land and fresh air make leaner, stronger bodies.

“Whatever the situation was, rural areas are leading the way now … they’re ahead of the curve,” said Michael Meit, director of the University of Pittsburgh Center for Rural Health Practice. “Something’s happened.”

When Ray Crawford walks down the hallway of his school, the beefy, 240-pound sophomore says he doesn’t stand out much. Many of his classmates are heavy, too.

“We go to the Eat ‘n Park to meet and chill, maybe don’t eat the right things,” he said, referring to a regional chain restaurant famous for its smiley-faced cookies. “There’s not much else to do.”

The Center for Rural Pennsylvania released a study recently that used state health figures to compare the body-mass index of seventh-graders in urban and rural communities more than 25,000 students in all.

About 16 percent of urban students qualified as obese, according to the study, which is in line with national average for children ages 6-19. In rural school districts, however, 20 percent of students were considered obese.

More alarmingly, researchers found that during the years of the survey, between 1999 and 2001, the number of obese students in rural school districts rose about 5 percent, more than twice the rate of their urban counterparts.

The same trends are being reported from New Mexico to Michigan to West Virginia.

In Michigan, children in rural areas were 3 percent to 9 percent more likely to be obese, researchers found. In rural North Carolina children had a 50 percent greater chance of being obese.

Mostly rural states have done studies that don’t distinguish between urban and rural children, but they have found the incidence of childhood obesity to be far greater than the national average.

More here.