It’s one of those long-held misconceptions about rural life — that folks who live and work in the country, especially farmers, are naturally healthier than their urban counterparts. It makes sense, considering the frequent exercise to be gained from manual labor, the fresh air, and a diet many times consisting of fresh fruits, vegetables and meats.

But now we learn that nothing could be further from the truth.

The Center for Rural Affairs, in a recent report entitled “Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity in Rural America,” says that a growing body of research reveals serious problems in nutrition and activity in rural areas. Further, rural residents generally fare worse than their urban counterparts in regards to obesity, which is opposite to the situation that existed prior to 1980.

How, in the span of less than 30 years, did this reversal occur? Several factors have contributed, according to the report.

Odds are you’ve told your children or grandchildren tales of woe about walking a mile or maybe two or three to school and back each day. But that doesn’t happen much these days. Forty years ago, half of all students walked or bicycled to school. Currently, that number had dropped to fewer than 15 percent. A recent survey conducted in Laurel, Neb., a rural community of about 1,000 people located in northeast Nebraska, found that only 18 percent of students walk or ride their bikes to school.

The survey revealed that traffic safety concerns were among the leading reasons why children did not walk or ride to school. Unfortunately, since more parents drive their children to school, walking and riding becomes more dangerous for those who do.

There’s also the employment factor. Fewer rural residents now have rigorous occupations, such as those involving farming, forestry and fishing. This is no surprise, considering the continuing decline in U.S. farmer numbers. Past research shows that farmers get more exercise than non-farmers do. But most job creation in rural areas in recent years has been in the service industries, which generally require much less physical activity than traditional rural occupations.

In addition, rural residents have limited access to healthy food choices, a surprising find since fresh fruits and vegetables are produced in rural areas. In a focus group consisting of day care providers in rural northeast Nebraska, the providers discussed how families have “too much going on” with their jobs, along with school and community activities.

Consequently, people in rural areas struggle with finding the time to exercise and to prepare nutritious meals. Ironically, in areas where food is grown that feeds the world, people often have limited access to healthy food choices. Many rural communities rely on convenience stores and hamburger or chicken chain restaurants for their food, which often offer little to no healthy choices.

Demographics also come into play, with rural residents being older, less educated and poorer than people who live in urban areas.

Another factor linked to poor health is the isolation of rural living. In a survey conducted by the Saint Louis University School of Public Health involving 2,500 rural residents in Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas, researchers found that the distance from recreational facilities, stores, churches and schools was linked to obesity. A fear of neighborhood crime, fear of traffic and poor neighborhood aesthetics were also linked to obesity.

Another interesting find is that social networks, which are generally a positive aspect of rural life, may actually reinforce unhealthy eating and sedentary behaviors. A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine links obesity to social networks. The researchers predict that if a person becomes obese the chances that a friend will become obese increases by 57 percent.

There is also some evidence that education about healthy living is deficient in rural areas, particularly in regards to nutrition. Some studies have found that rural residents have less understanding of how to prepare nutritious meals, and a shortage of nutritionists in rural areas likely exacerbates the problem. Unfortunately, rural schools often do not have the funding available for nutrition programs.

All of this together presents a fairly convincing case that country living isn’t good for you. But we all know that’s painting with too broad a stroke. The evidence does tell us, however, that rural living no longer automatically leads to a healthy lifestyle, and that deserves some consideration.

e-mail: phollis@farmpress.com