The beginning of January is prime time for making resolutions to improve one’s fitness and health. But maintaining a healthy lifestyle isn’t as simple as burning holiday calories. Socioeconomic class, combined with where people grow up and where they currently reside, structures everything from education to income to employment opportunities—and now fitness as well.
To better understand this latter divide, I took a detailed look at the connection between how metros rank on the American Fitness Index, or AFI (which rates metros on individual health indicators such as vegetable consumption and daily physical activity, as well as community or environmental indicators such as walkability or proximity to a local park), and the key socioeconomic characteristics of these metros. (My CityLab colleague Jessica Leigh Hester has already covered the strengths and weaknesses of the latest rankings on this site.)
The map below, created by my Martin Prosperity Institute colleague Grace Chen, charts these cities according to the AFI. Cities with a low fitness score are shown in blue, while cities with a high fitness score are shown in dark purple. In general, the East Coast seems to contain most of the fittest cities in the U.S.
Next, MPI’s Charlotta Mellander ran a basic correlation analysis to determine the various metro characteristics associated with better or worse fitness levels. As usual, I point out that correlation does not equal causation, but merely points to associations between variables. Socioeconomic class tracks across three key dimensions: income, education, and occupation. (My own research finds that fitness, too, tracks closely across all three of these key attributes.)
For one, fitness is closely associated with the wealth and affluence of metros. There are considerable correlations between fitness and several key measures of economic development, including income (.70) and wages (.69).
Cities’ Fitness Index Score vs. Their Income per Capita
Fitness is also closely correlated with the share of adults who hold a college degree (.69) and the share of the workforce that are members of the creative class (.65).
Cities’ Fitness Index Score vs. Their Residents’ Educational Backgrounds
Yet another positive correlation can be found between fitness and the concentration of the high-tech industry (.59) and level of innovation, measured in patents (.60).
Cities’ Fitness Index Score vs. Their Concentration of Tech Companies
Conversely, fitness has a substantially negative association with the share of the workforce that are members of the blue-collar working class (-.64). While this may seem counterintuitive, since blue-collar jobs are more likely to require physical labor, sedentary professionals and creative-class workers actually spend more time exercising outside of work.
Cities’ Fitness Index Scores vs. Their Concentration of Blue-Collar Jobs
Fitter cities are also more expensive cities, with the correlation to median housing cost being the highest of any in our analysis (.71).
Fitness is also associated with the density and commuting patterns of metros. It is positively associated with metro density (.42) and the share of commuters who walk to work (.48), but negatively associated with those who drive to work alone (-.52)—a key indicator of sprawl. While this suggests a connection between fitness and walking, it also reflects the fact that denser metros—where more people walk to work—are more affluent and educated. Unsurprisingly, fitness is also positively associated with the overall happiness and well-being of metros (.54).
While many believe that people are fitter in warm, sunny places like L.A., San Diego, or Miami Beach, our analysis finds little connection between the two. Metro fitness has no statistical relationship to how cold it gets (as measured by January temperatures) and is actually negatively associated with summer heat (with a correlation of -.56).
For all the talk of fitness that permeates the American zeitgeist—from reality shows like The Biggest Loser to Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign to combat childhood obesity—there are subtle factors that contribute to a healthy lifestyle that don’t get explored. As beneficial as exercise and mindful eating may be, healthy living is not just the product of a series of good decisions. It is also the result of how culture and society are structured. At the end of the day, fitness is consistently tied up with affluence, jobs, education, and class position—all of which are partially contingent on where people live. With the success of fit cities comes the unfortunate reality that these cities reflect yet another gripping image of the U.S.’s great divide along economic and class lines.