Words by Blair Waller
I began a search for the fittest cities in America. As I trolled through copious amounts of data, articles and opinion pieces, one question kept surfacing: What external factors contribute most to the health of its citizens? I considered the following key contributing factors.
Conventional thinking would tell you that sunshine was a major factor. You’d think warm-ish weather year round would encourage folks to get out and enjoy activities in the sun. Additionally, the crop season is longer, allowing fruits and vegetables to be grown locally and be available in greater abundance.
Let’s take a look at USA Today’s 2013 article of “Fittest Cities in America” vs. “Most Un-fit Cities in America”. By my rough count (and without going into a complex analysis of what constitutes a “warm” vs. “cold” city), out of the top 25 fittest cities, only 25% are situated in warmer climates. Surprisingly, the vast majority are situated in climates I would consider frigid, such as Baltimore, Hartford, Salt Lake City, Buffalo and Minneapolis. By contrast, using the same approximate measure, roughly 60% of the most unfit cities were found in warmer climates, such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Miami, San Antonio and Jacksonville. So much for that theory.
Does the number of lakes and rivers in proximity play a part? How about proximity to the ocean? Are there mountains nearby, offering beautiful landscapes for exploration? Perhaps hosting an annual marathon would encourage its citizens to embark on the physical challenge.
Using the same data points as before, as well as the same general, not-so-scientific approach, I found that this factor was less than absolute as well. Roughly 48% of fit cities were close in proximity to oceans, lakes and prominent rivers (at least those conducive to physical activity). In contrast, roughly the same percentage of unfit cities had similar access to those same features. Not as glaring results as before but still far from conclusive.
To borrow the old adage, you are what you eat. I fully endorse this concept as fundamental to well being. When I eat fast and processed foods, the gratification is immediate and the consequences negative – fatigue, lowered self-esteem, weight gain, and so forth. On the other hand, when consuming fresh, well-rounded meals, I feel leaner, more energetic and sharper mentally. If we can agree on this concept, we can all agree that the types of food most readily available to a population, the more fit they will be.
Once again using the data points and method, let’s look at the have’s and the have not’s with regards to a healthy culinary culture. This one is a little more complex to breakdown but by my rough count, there was little difference between the fit and unfit in terms of culinary culture. Roughly one-third of each are cities I would consider high on food culture with the likes of Seattle, Portland, New York and San Francisco on the healthy side, compared with Los Angeles, New Orleans, Miami and Chicago on the unhealthy end of the spectrum. Basically, each of these cities has similar access to an abundance of healthy options whereas the others, in both lists, possess less access.
There is little doubt that each of the above plays a significant role in society’s collective health. Furthermore, we can assume that the greater the combination and/or extent of each factor, the healthier the respective population. In other words, it’s not enough to possess a single factor (say, warm weather) and severely lack in others. Like a healthy lifestyle itself, it takes the right balance. With a healthy lifestyle, it’s the balance of food and exercise along with consistency. For example, smaller meals over time versus mounds of healthy foods at once or 30 minutes of activity per day versus a 4 hour weight lifting session on Friday. So, balance and time wins the race (and shrinks the waist line!).
The natural question that came to mind was this: How does Austin rank among the fittest and least fit in the United States? Furthermore, what does Austin have to offer within each category – Weather, Activities and Food?
I believe we can cover the first, weather, in a couple sentences. It’s hot in the summer which, unless you’re into the steam room approach of perspiring your weight down, is conducive to staying in the AC. The winters are nice and cool but it’s not like we have mountains and winter activities nearby. In summation, Austin’s climate itself doesn’t do its population any huge favors. If it’s OK with you, we’re going to close the books on that one. Plus, the analysis above didn’t exactly offer any windows of curiosity.
Before we tackle Activities and Food, let’s first explore how Austin ranks among the nation’s fittest. Apparently, this is a popular subject among the leading publications. Take in the following.
- ACSM American Fitness Index (2011, 2013): Austin ranked #16 in 2011 and jumped to #11 in 2013. This appears to be the most official of all rankings as I found numerous other publications citing the results.
- TIME Magazine’s “Fittest U.S. Cities” (2013): Austin chimes in at #11. They note that, “Residents in cities with the highest rankings tended to have higher levels of physical activity and low rates of heart disease and diabetes. They also had more parks per capita as well as advanced state requirements for physical education classes.”
- Forbes’ “Top 10 Fittest Cities in America” (2010): Austin secures the #10 spot in ’10. They say, “Austin has a high number of parks and pools per capita–and low rates of asthma and heart disease.”
- Men’s Fitness “Fittest and Fattest Cities in America”: Austin stakes claim to #12 in the “Fit” end of the spectrum. Of note, “In Austin, 31.1% of residents are cardio fanatics.”
- Travel + Leisure’s “America’s Fittest Cities” (2010): Austin’s highest ranking I could find at #3. They attribute the following to the rank, “Austin’s collective creative energy may be strong enough to burn calories all on its own. Hopefully its slip from the #2 spot last year is only temporary. … Take a dragon boat out on Lady Bird Lake, a Colorado River reservoir. Or, if weather permits, go for a dip in nearby Barton Springs.”
- Facebook’s “Fittest Cities in America” (2013): In this unofficially official list, Austin chimes in at #3, stating that the city is the nation leader in yoga.
Not a bad showing for a city situated within a state where “everything is bigger”, surrounded by the some of the most unfit cities in the nation – San Antonio, Houston and Dallas.
Over the next couple weeks, we’ll be investigating the aforementioned outstanding topics – Activity and Food – with the view to determining exactly how Austin ranks among the fittest cities in the nation.
Consider this Part One, an introduction, of Three. We here at LIVIN Austin will see you next week. Until then, take care and go for a jog or something.