From sea to shining sea, America is a big country—both in terms of square mileage and poundage. So everything we do that makes it easier to get healthy and stave off obesity helps, right? Where you live seems to have quite a bit to do with whether or not you’re physically fit. At least that’s what a new annual report from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) finds. The ACSM just released its “American Fitness Index,” a ranking of 50 U.S. metro areas when it comes to fitness and health.
This year’s report ranked Minneapolis-St. Paul first again—for the third year running—finding it the healthiest, fittest metropolitan area in the U.S., said the ACSM. The rankings crunch a variety of numbers and metrics, including the level of chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension; how easy or difficult it is for residents to access healthcare; and community resources that support physical activity, like parks, swimming pools, and tennis courts.
Minneapolis-St. Paul—which includes Bloomington, Wisconsin—received a score of 78.2. So what are the Twin Cities doing right? “It’s surprising; maybe there are more hockey players there than we think,” jokes Tom Holland, exercise physiologist and author of the Beat the Gym: Personal Trainer Secrets Without the Personal Trainer Price Tag (William Morrow). “It shows that what constitutes a healthy city is much more than just a good climate. There are numerous other factors involved, and people can increase their health dramatically by making small changes over time, regardless of the weather.”
Specifically, Minneapolis-St. Paul has more people who say they’re exercising at least moderately; more farmers markets, ball diamonds, dog parks, golf courses, recreation centers, tennis courts, and other public fitness amenities; and more city land devoted to parks, plus the area spends a lot more on parks. (Minneapolis-St. Paul spends $227 per resident on parks, more than double the $102 target goal set for metro areas.) The area also has fewer people dying of heart disease and diabetes than many other cities.
Rounding out the top five on the American Fitness Index, in descending order, are:
• Washington, D.C./Arlington and Alexandria, Virginia
• Portland, Oregon/Vancouver, Washington
• San Francisco/Oakland/Fremont, California
• Denver/Aurora/Broomfield, Colorado
Interestingly, most of the fittest cities suffered from less-than-ideal weather much of the year—from Minneapolis’ heavy snowfall (the area normally gets around 54 inches of snow per year, according to the Minnesota Climatology Working Group) to Seattle and Portland’s notoriously wet climate. So in spite of weather that can make getting outside to exercise difficult, or at least unpleasant, people still find a way to work out. Says Holland: “It illustrates that healthy living is a choice; you are not a victim of your environment.”
On the flip side, cities you’d think would be natural havens for the fit-minded—at least when it comes to the weather—aren’t always as conducive to exercise and health. The Los Angeles/Long Beach/Santa Ana, California area, for example, came in at 29 out of 50 on the ACSM list. The Phoenix, Arizona metro area ranked 33 in spite of having three of the top five sunniest cities in the country; and Miami/Fort Lauderdale/Pompano Beach, Florida was 42 on the list. At the bottom of the 50 ranked cities? Oklahoma City, with a score of 31.2.
If you’re thinking of relocating and want to choose a new town in part because of its commitment to fitness, Holland recommends looking for a few key things: “I believe what truly makes a city healthy for an individual is twofold: First, easily building activity into your day through access to things like sidewalks, parks, roads that are good for biking, and public recreation centers and gyms,” he notes. “Second would be access to a wide variety of healthy food choices, especially less expensive healthy food.”
What makes for a fit and healthy city? Easy ways to build activity into your day and healthy food choices, says one expert.
But maybe you like where you’re living and don’t want to move. So how can you help your city become more fit? Holland recommends advocating for or helping to organize these specific changes in your town:
• Organize lectures on health and wellness by experts
• Help to start exercise classes at community centers
• Ask malls to open early for walkers, especially the elderly
• Encourage local government to build sidewalks and bike lanes
• Organize fitness events, like 5K walks, donating proceeds to local charities
• Lobby municipal agencies to install outdoor exercise equipment at local parks
Where does your city fall the ACSM’s American Fitness Index list? Is physical activity a priority for you when it comes to where you live?