Recently the ACSM released its annual American Fitness Report for 2016. The report assesses fifty metropolitan areas across the United States for various fitness factors - including smoking rates, obesity statistics, and number of parks and other public recreational facilities -  to determine how fit each area is.


The top ten metro areas were:


  1. Washington, D.C.
  2. Minneapolis, MN
  3. Denver, CO
  4. Portland, OR
  5. San Francisco, CA
  6. Seattle, WA
  7. Boston, MA
  8. Salt Lake City, UT
  9. Hartford, CT
  10. San Diego, CA


I was happy to see my hometown of San Antonio had moved up on the list…from #47 to #45. But despite the progress, the fact remains that I live in one the ten least fit metropolitan areas in America. Here’s the whole list of fitness bottom dwellers:


  1. Las Vegas, NV
  2. Detroit, MI
  3. Orlando, FL
  4. Birmingham, AL
  5. San Antonio, TX
  6. Nashville, TN
  7. Memphis, TN
  8. Louisville, KY
  9. Oklahoma City, OK
  10. Indianapolis, IN


This data is surprising to me. There’s no reason San Antonio should be one of the least fit cities in America. With the exception of hot and muggy summers, we have beautiful weather year-round. The beach is nearby. There are gyms everywhere. We have a lot of park space - in fact, in the 2015 report, one of San Antonio’s strengths was that it had slightly more acres of parkland per capita. And according to the 2016 reports, Texas state physical education requirements are an area of excellence, which means they exceed the national target goal.


Take Birmingham, Alabama as another example. According to the report, Birmingham has more farmers’ markets, dog parks, park playgrounds, golf courses, park units, rec centers, swimming pools, and tennis courts per capita than the target goal. Alabama also has a higher state requirement for physical education. And yet the data also includes several “improvement priority areas,” meaning the reported data was less than 20 percent of the target goal. A lower percent report consuming 2+ fruits per day and 3+ vegetables per day, and there is a much higher percentage of obesity, asthma, diabetes, and death due to cardiovascular disease. Despite all those farmer’s markets and dog parks, the Birmingham metro area comes in at #44 on the list.


Reading this report made me think about what makes a city or metropolitan area more or less fit. Some of the data just doesn’t add up. An area might have more farmer’s markets, but less fruit and vegetable consumption. The home state might have better physical education standards, but higher obesity rates. 


It seems there’s a mysterious ingredient that some metropolitan areas have and others are lacking. I suspect it has something to do with community and social norms. For example, the city of Austin, Texas – just an hour from where I live and ranked much higher at number fifteen – has a palpable fit culture. People walk or ride their bikes around the city, and there are innovative fitness communities cropping up everywhere. Part of what’s so weird about Austin is that fitness isn’t weird.


Humans are prone to peer pressure, and it seems the cities at the bottom of this list might just need a little more of it. The materials are there, but I suspect there’s one thing missing: that elusive thing called “motivation.” How do you spark motivation on the community level?

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