What Makes Cities Fit

Earlier this week, the American College of Sports Medicine released its new version of the American Fitness Index, which tracks the health and fitness level of America's 50 largest metropolitan regions. The index is defined as a "composite of preventive health behaviors, levels of chronic disease conditions, health care access, and community resources and policies that support physical activity." The table below shows the fitness levels for these 50 metros.


Source: American Fitness Index

Greater Washington, D.C. tops the list (for the third consecutive year) followed by Boston, Minneapolis-St.Paul, Seattle, Portland, Denver, Sacramento, San Francisco, Hartford, and Austin. At the opposite side of the spectrum, the least-fit metros were Oklahoma City, Birmingham, Memphis, Detroit, Louisville, Las Vegas, Indianapolis, San Antonio, Houston, and New Orleans. Warm metros like L.A. and Miami do worse than might be expected, while cold metros like Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Cincinnati do better.

With the help of my Martin Prosperity Institute colleague Charlotta Mellander, we decided to take a look at the relationships between the American Fitness Index and a variety of regional characteristics from temperature levels to income and output, educated people and knowledge-driven economies. As usual, I point out in advance that our analysis points to association between variables only. It does not imply causation, and other factors may complicate the picture.

Climate and Temperature: Most people would think fitness levels are higher in warm, sunnier places, and lower in cold places. But that's not what we find, at all, when we examine the association between metro fitness and various measures of climate and temperature.

First and foremost, we find no correlation between fitness and cold locations, measured as mean January temperature. We also find no correlation between fitness and the January to July temperature difference. We do, however, find a significant correlation between fitness and the hottest places, measured as mean July temperature: but it is negative (-.52), meaning places that get really hot in July have lower levels of fitness on average.

Income, Wages, and Output: Now, let's look at the relationship between fitness levels and economic development. It stands to reason that more affluent regions where residents have more resources to devote to health and fitness would score better. And, not surprisingly, that is what we find. We find a significant but moderate relationship between metro-level fitness and economic output per capita (.35), and between it and income (.41), and a somewhat higher association between fitness and metropolitan wages (.54).

The scatter-graph below charts the relationship between fitness and wages. The relationships are reasonably linear, and the line slopes steeply upward. Greater Washington, D.C. performs even better than its wage level would predict. The same is true for Minneapolis and Seattle, Portland and Denver, and Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. I personally found Pittsburgh a fantastic place for road-cycling during my time there. On the other hand, San Francisco, San Jose, and L.A., as well as Detroit, Oklahoma City, and Memphis, are significantly below it, performing worse than their wage levels might predict.


Source: American Fitness Index; Wages from the Bureau of Labor Statistics 2006;  Income and Economic Output (measured as gross regional product) from the U.S. Census Bureau

Post-Industrial Economic Structures: Our ongoing research suggests that post-industrial economic structures play an additional role in health and well-being, over and above the effects of economic resources. This entails the shift from physically oriented work to knowledge, professional, and creative occupations and industries -- and from lower-skilled to more highly skilled and educated workforces.

Presented by

Richard Florida is Co-founder and Editor at Large of CityLab.com and Senior Editor at The Atlantic. He is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and Global Research Professor at NYU. More

Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative ClassWho's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He's also the founder of the Creative Class Group, and a list of his current clients can be found here

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