Women in a pilates class
Small boutique fitness studios are sweeping the nation and competing with larger gym chains. Seth Wenig/AP

The availability of exercise venues reflects broader divides of class and geography.

This is the first of two posts that explore the geography of fitness. The availability of indoor fitness centers reflects broader divides of class and place.

Once again this New Year, the media is filled with fitness and lifestyle experts invoking Americans to eat better, work out more, and get in shape. While it’s hard to argue with such advice, the reality is that our very ability to work out and stay fit depends on our class position and where we live. The availability of fitness venues is yet another dimension of America’s great divide along class and geographic lines.

That’s the big takeaway from a new analysis of the geography of fitness I carried out with my colleague Charlotta Mellander. While opportunities for brisk walking or jogging, and public courts and fields are in most cities, our analysis examined America’s availability of fitness venues, based on the locations of fitness and recreational sports centers, including gyms, workout centers, pools, tennis clubs, and ice-skating rinks across U.S. metro areas.

Our measure of fitness-venue availability is based on a location quotient, which measures the relative concentration of fitness-center employees across U.S. metros for 2015. We ran the numbers for both fitness establishments, as well as employees, and the basic pattern is the same. Mellander also ran a basic correlation analysis to understand the factors associated with fitness-venue availability. As usual, I point out that correlation does not equal causation, but simply points to an association between variables. Still, the results point to a clear divide in America’s fitness opportunity based on key attributes of where we live.

Source: Charlotta Mellander (David H. Montgomery/CityLab)

The map above shows the broad picture for America’s 300-plus metros, charting the concentration of fitness employees (based on their location quotients). Large dots indicate larger concentrations of fitness employees across the country on the East Coast around the Bos-Wash (Boston-Washington) Corridor, in Southern Florida, in the Midwest, in Texas, and on the West Coast.

That said, the metros that have the best fitness-venue availability, measured as the concentration of fitness-center employees across metro area, are mainly affluent, smaller metros—a combination of outdoorsy sports-oriented places and college towns like Grants Pass and Bend, Oregon; Bremerton, Washington; Missoula, Montana; State College, Pennsylvania; Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo, California; Burlington, Vermont; Boulder, Colorado; and Ann Arbor, Michigan.

But larger metros like Bridgeport-Stamford, Connecticut; Des Moines, Iowa; and Seattle, Washington also have relatively high concentrations of fitness-center employees. On the flip side, the places with the smallest concentrations of fitness-center employees are smaller, distressed parts of the South like Pine Bluffs, Arkansas; economically hard-hit Rustbelt metros like Flint, Michigan, and Weirton, West Virginia; and Sunbelt retirement communities like The Villages, Florida.

America’s fitness-center availability tracks closely with key markers of socioeconomic class: income, education, and occupation. There are significant positive association correlations between income (.38), the share of adults that are college graduates (.46), creative-class share of the workforce (.38), and the concentration of fitness-center employees across metro areas. Conversely, fitness-venue availability is negatively associated with the share of the labor force that are members of the working class (-.32).

Fitness-center availability is a feature of more innovative, high-tech metros as well. Our measure is positively associated with greater concentrations of science and technology workers (.34) and higher levels of innovation, measured by number of patents (.42). Fitness-venue availability is also associated with the share of workers in arts, culture, and media industries (.31).

Availability of fitness centers is also a product of denser metros, where fewer people depend on the car. Our measure of fitness-center employees is positively associated with the metro density (.29) and even more strongly associated with the share of commuters who bike to work (.42), but negatively associated with those who drive to work alone (-.35)—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. That said, there is no association between our measure of fitness-center employees and the size of metros (measured by population). It appears that fitness centers are more a characteristic of the density, knowledge intensity, and especially the educational level of metros, rather than their size alone. Not surprisingly, given these findings, fitness-center availability is also a characteristic of more expensive cities, with a positive correlation (.37) to median housing costs.

While many believe that people are fitter in warm, sunny places like Southern California or Florida, our analysis finds a somewhat counterintuitive connection between fitness centers and climate. You would think colder places would boost the demand for fitness centers: People are more likely to exercise indoors in places where winter temperatures are colder. But our measure of fitness-center employees is actually negatively (if modestly) associated with places that have colder January temperatures (-.22). Conversely, you might also think warmer places, where more people exercise outdoors, would have fewer indoor fitness centers. But our measure of fitness-center employees is even more negatively associated with hotter warmer temperatures (with a correlation of -.40 based on July temperature readings).

American’s fitness-center availability is not just related to how much fitness activity is available to residents, it is also reflected in the well-being of places. Metros with higher concentrations of fitness-center employees also have higher levels of overall happiness and well-being (with a correlation of .42). This again likely reflects the greater priority placed on fitness and greater demand for fitness centers in more highly educated, affluent metros, factors which also shape overall well-being.

America’s economic and political divides along class, education, and income lines are well-known and well-documented. We can add our availability of varied opportunities to stay healthy and in shape to that very same list of divides.

CityLab editorial fellow Claire Tran contributed research and editorial assistance to this article.

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