Washington, D.C. tops an annual ranking of which cities are in the best shape
Not all cities are equal from a fitness standpoint. In some big cities one in three people are obese; in others it's only one in five. In some cities there is one baseball diamond for every 10,000 people; in others there are five times as many ball fields.
So says this year's American Fitness Index report, published by the American College of Sports Medicine. It takes the biggest 50 metropolitan areas and ranks them by fitness levels. The top city on the list, now for three years running, is Washington, D.C. The least fit is Oklahoma City, Okla.
The index considers 30 factors. The most important ones are measures of the city population's disease rates, mortality, physical attributes and lifestyle--even how many people eat full servings of fruit and vegetables. The rest of the ranking is based on the number of dog parks, golf courses, swimming pools and the like.
"We are thrilled to be the fittest city in the nation for the third consecutive year," Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty said in a statement. "We are investing in our recreation centers, building new swimming pools and opening more parks so our residents can exercise, swim, walk, bike and compete in sports."
Washington isn't normally thought of as a health-obsessed city. That designation might bring to mind outdoorsy places like Denver or Minneapolis, two other cities in the top 10.
But the Washington metro area "has a low smoking rate, a better-than-average number of folks eating fruits and vegetables and a lower-than-average rate of obesity," says Walter Thompson, a professor at Georgia State who advises the index. Another example is the diabetes rate: Only 6.7% of the D.C.-area population has diabetes, compared with 8.3% nationwide. The youthful population of government aides and interns surely helps.
The nation's capital is also a well-endowed city when it comes to community recreation centers, ball fields and other places to exercise. Washington has the second-highest rate of people walking or biking to work, aided by 60 miles of bike lanes.
On the other hand, just because there are a lot of parks and bike lanes being built doesn't mean that everyone uses them. And by giving points simply for having infrastructure, the index might favor wealthier cities or those with bigger governments. "It's a fair point," says Brenda Chamness, who gathers the data for the index. Chamness points out that research has found that fitness levels rise along with the building of new facilities. "If individuals do not have access to safe, convenient and affordable places to exercise, they would be less likely to exercise."
Another city that does well is affluent Boston, with a low smoking rate and state-mandated health insurance. Both Seattle and Portland, Ore., make the top five as well, thanks to low obesity rates and lots of opportunities for physical activity.
At the other end of the spectrum is Oklahoma City, which comes in dead last among the largest metropolitan areas.
Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett is used to people saying he's from an obese city. "I'm not saying we shouldn't be last," he says. "There are issues here that are real that we're not running away from. We have an obesity problem." In Oklahoma City almost one in three people weighs in as obese, and the diabetes rate is a sky-high 10.5%. The city lacks farmers' markets, and virtually everyone drives to work.
But Mayor Cornett thinks the city gets unduly penalized because of technicalities in how the rankings are computed. Because the city doesn't run the schools, it can't classify school playgrounds as city-owned parks, as some other metro areas do.
Cornett is working hard to improve the city's ranking. Two years ago the city launched a website, called ThisCityIsGoingOnADiet.com, where 41,000 people have logged on to record how much weight they have lost. The city has made it halfway to its goal of dropping 1 million pounds. Cornett say he personally dropped 38 pounds.
The city only has about half as many parks, tennis courts, swimming pools and recreation centers per capita as a typical city, but is trying to reverse the tide. A recent bond issue, Cornett says, will pay for gymnasiums inside urban schools, 53 miles of bike trails, 450 miles of new sidewalks, a 77-acre city park and a plan to make 180 acres of downtown into a pedestrian mall.
"It is not OK for anyone to be obese," Cornett says. "There needs to be a cultural shift."