Want to get fit and stay fit? Arlington, Va., may be the city for you: For the fifth year in a row, it has been named the fittest city in America.
Meanwhile, the title of the least fit city goes to Oklahoma City, according to the annual fitness rankings of America’s 100 largest cities from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)/Elevance Health Foundation’s American Fitness Index.
This year, the Index included 34 indicators of personal and community health (think exercise, sleep, chronic disease, parks, playgrounds, bike paths, safe streets and more), with an emphasis on how physical activity affects mental health due to widespread reports that the ongoing pandemic took a toll on mental health.
“Arlington, Va., was ranked as the fittest city, with a score of 85 out of a possible 100,” said Amanda Paluch, a physical activity epidemiologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a member of the American Fitness Index Advisory Board. By contrast, Oklahoma City’s score was 20.1.
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“Arlington had the highest proportion of residents exercising in the previous month and the lowest rates of high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes,” Paluch explained, and it also has lots of parks and recreational facilities.
In contrast, “Oklahoma City ranks among the lowest in these indicators, with higher rates of chronic disease and less availability of community parks and recreation that can support active living,” Paluch said.
When it comes to mental health, things were bleak: Close to 40% of residents in all of the 100 Fitness Index cities reported poor mental health. Cities reporting the highest rates of poor mental health included New Orleans; Laredo, Texas; San Francisco; Washington, D.C.; San Jose, Calif.; Madison, Wis.; Lubbock, Texas; Stockton, Calif.; Riverside, Calif.; and Cincinnati.
Poor mental health and lack of physical activity often travel together, fitness experts noted.
“Mental health issues can contribute to chronic disease and sedentary lifestyles,” said Stella Volpe. She is a nutritionist and exercise physiologist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va., and chair of the American Fitness Index Advisory Board. “Fortunately, physical activity, even in small amounts, can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, and improve mood and self-esteem.”
The good news is the ratings aren’t set in stone and provide a road map for cities looking to get fitter. For example, Tampa, Fla., has jumped from 57 to 25 in the rankings, thanks to increases in exercise, sleep and the number of folks reporting excellent/very good health and lower rates of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
More good news: There was an increase in the percentage of Americans exercising in the previous month, sleeping 7+ hours/day, and reporting excellent or very good health, compared to last year’s Fitness Index.
Cities can improve their rankings on the Fitness Index in multiple ways, Paluch noted.
“One way could be … increasing the number and access to parks, playgrounds, and recreational facilities or taking the steps to make your city more pedestrian-friendly for both walking and biking,” she said.
Healthy living must be the easy choice, Paluch said. “Clean air to breathe while outside; safe and accessible walking paths and sidewalks; playgrounds within walking distance from families’ homes, are examples of ways cities can support healthy living,” she added.
But don’t expect these changes to happen overnight. “Although slow, it will lead to improvements in your residents’ health, quality of life and overall vitality of your city,” Paluch said.
Expect other dividends, she said. Fit cities create stronger community ties and improve the quality of life of the residents.
“Cities that are well-designed to promote physical activity have economic benefits as well, such as increased home values, business and job growth, and an influx of new residents,” she said. “It also can reduce health care costs, where every $1 invested in building trails for walking and biking saves nearly $3 in health care costs.”
The Elevance Health Foundation, the philanthropic arm of insurance company Elevance Health, helped fund the new report. The Fitness Index has expanded from 50 to 100 cities, so comparisons to the first 10 years aren’t feasible. Residents and city leaders can compare their city’s indicators from 2018 to 2022, but not the overall rank or score.
Find out how your city compares to Arlington, Va., or other cities.
SOURCES: Amanda Paluch, PhD, physical activity epidemiologist, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and member, executive committee, American Fitness Index Advisory Board; Stella Volpe, PhD, RDN, nutritionist, exercise physiologist, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Va., chair, American Fitness Index Advisory Board, ACSM/Anthem Foundation American Fitness Index, July 12, 2022
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