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America’s Great Fitness Divide

Healthy cities reflect our nation’s growing economic and class inequalities.

littleny /

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. Our socioeconomic class, combined with where we grow up and where we currently reside, structures everything from our education to our income to our employment opportunities—and now our 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™ (AFI) (which rates metros on individual health indicators like vegetable consumption and daily physical activity, as well as community or environmental indicators like 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 (MPI) colleague Grace Chen, charts these cities according to the AFI Index. 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, or the kind of work we do. 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).

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).

Yet another positive correlation can be found between fitness and the concentration of high-tech industry (.59) and level of innovation, measured in patents (.60).

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.

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 the First Lady’s “Let’s Move!” campaign to combat childhood obesity—we don’t often explore the more subtle factors that contribute to a healthy lifestyle. As beneficial as exercise and mindful eating may be, the overall health of our lifestyles is not just the product of a series of good decisions. It is also the result of how our culture and society is structured. At the end of the day, fitness is consistently tied up with our affluence, jobs, education, and class position—all of which are partially contingent on where we live. With the success of fit cities comes the unfortunate reality that these cities reflect yet another gripping image of our country’s great divide along economic and class lines.

Top image: littleny /

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