V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer

Fit and fat cities

Published on travel.msn.ca October, 2010 as part of a photo gallery.

Is your city making you fat? If you live in the burbs and drive the 15-minute walk to your local grocery store then chances are good the city you live in will cause you to pack on the pounds, if it hasn’t already. On the other hand, if you’re lucky enough to live in a metropolitan, pedestrian city that isn’t car-dependent, with miles of bike lanes and forward-thinking leaders, odds are that the majority of the city’s residents will adopt a healthy lifestyle. That’s not city slicker snobbery talking, it’s scientific data, courtesy of Statistics Canada. Check out our list of some of North America’s fittest and fattest cities.

Vancouver, B.C.
When it comes to Canada’s healthiest cities, there are no surprises here. In the latest available 2006 Statistics Canada report entitled “Regional Differences in Obesity,” Vancouver came out on top with the lowest obesity rate of all the major urban centres in Canada at 12 per cent. The national obesity rate back then was 23 per cent. In the good-natured, sibling rivalry that exists between the country’s biggest cities, we have to hand it to our cousins in Vancouver: You have the best outdoor fitness equipment money can’t buy. With the mountains in your backyard for hiking and skiing, miles of running and biking trails, mild winters and coastal beaches, it’s no wonder your lifestyle centres around health and fitness. After all, it would be criminal not to take advantage of your natural surroundings. And after putting on a spectacular show with the Winter Olympics, one that made the rest of the country so proud, we double salute you.


St. John’s, Newfoundland

In the same Statistics Canada report, another city was unfortunately singled out for bagging the title of fattest city in the country: St. John’s. Is it a coincidence that the healthiest and fattest cities are at polar ends of the country? In a word — no. Another 2007 StatsCan report reported that west coast residents — B.C., Yukon, and Alberta —were the most active, while residents of P.E.I and Newfoundland and Labrador had the lowest proportions of physical activity, at 44 per cent and 46 per cent respectively. While St. John’s shares an important distinction with Vancouver in being a coastal city, don’t forget the marked differences. Namely that it’s not nearly as mild and temperate as its west coast counterpart. With gusty, north Atlantic winds blowing along the shoreline nine months of the year, it’s less conducive to outdoor living, and more towards increased beer and pie fortification.

Denver, Colorado

Dubbed the Mile High City for sitting a mile above sea level, Denver consistently tops numerous America’s fittest cities lists. Conditions here are optimized for healthy living: with 300 days of sunshine a year, 1,370 km of biking trails, more than 200 parks in the city — the nation’s largest city park system— and major ski resorts within a few hours drive, it’s only natural to adopt an active lifestyle. Recently, the city launched a bike sharing program and is hoping residents will ditch their SUVs for the two-wheeled kind on their daily commutes. Denver is also known as a “sports capital,” as it boasts eight professional sports teams in including the Broncos, Rockies, Nuggets and Avalanche.


Huntington, West Virginia

Before the Associated Press swooped in, crunched a few numbers, and proclaimed Huntington, West Virginia the fattest city in America in 2008, this was a sleepy, unremarkable town just trying to survive the economic downturn like everybody else. Then, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver descended on the city with his camera and TV crew, zooming in on its portly, wobbly residents with the mission to turn the obesity rates around. Nearly half of Huntington’s inhabitants are obese and also lead the country in rates of heart disease, diabetes, and even tooth loss according to figures from the Centre for Disease Control. Apparently, Oliver didn’t exactly get a warm welcome from residents here and even reduced the guy to tears. We, however, are team Jamie: if your kids are so disconnected from fresh fruits and vegetables that they misidentify tomatoes for potatoes, something is more than a little amiss...

Portland, Oregon

It’s the No. 1 bicycle commuting city in the U.S. Thanks to a city infrastructure designed to encourage and support cyclists, the city of Portland was able to sway more commuters to ride to work using old fashioned pedal power in 2008, with 6.4 per cent. That’s a jump from 4.2 per cent in 2007. It only follows that the city also happens to top many “greenest city in the U.S.” lists. Last year, the state passed The Oregon Menu Labelling Act last year, requiring restaurants with 15 or more outlets nationwide to provide nutritional information on their menu items. According to the Centre for Disease Control, Oregon also has one of the lowest obesity rates in the country, at 24 per cent. Portland itself is known as a “youth magnet” for attracting young professionals ages 25 to 39. Other interesting lists the city has made: Best Beer Cities in the World, U.S. and Canada’s Best Places to Eat, Skateboarding Capital of the World, and Least Wasteful Cities in the U.S.

Jackson, Mississippi

When First Lady Michelle Obama started her “Let’s Move” anti-childhood obesity campaign, one of the first places she hit was Jackson in Mississippi, the fattest state in the country. So dire is the obesity problem in this state, that lawmakers even proposed a bill that would ban restaurants from serving obese people. If a restaurant were caught feeding the obese — not to be confused with geese — the health department could revoke their license. In the end, however, the bill didn’t fly — yes, pun intended — but it provoked a certain measure of understandable public outrage. More than one-third of Mississippians are obese and also lead the country for heart disease.

Washington, D.C.

Health and fitness may not be the first notions associated with the centre of political theatre in the U.S., but according to this year’s American Fitness Index, Washington D.C. trounced its rivals for boasting the most active residents, the lowest rates of smoking, obesity and diabetes, and the best nutritional eating habits. The report, published by the American College of Sports Medicine, also pointed out that 80 per cent of locals reported exercising in the previous month. The city has the second highest rate of commuters who walk or bike to work. According to the Centre for Disease Control, 32 per cent of residents said they consume fruits and vegetables more than five times a day — the most of any state. It surely helps that the city is likewise populated by armies of young, overzealous political aides and interns who run around like headless chickens trying to make their mark. Takes a lot of fuel for that, it does...

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Their official state meal, is fried okra, squash, cornbread, barbecue pork, biscuits, sausage and gravy, grits, corn, strawberries, chicken fried stead, black-eyed peas — oh  and a generous slice of pecan pie to wash it all down. Collectively, these dishes would make the dinner table groan under its weight were it not for the fact that the ground already heaves under the weight of Oklahomans. Nationwide, Oklahoma ranks among the top five heaviest states in the U.S., with one-third of residents clinically obese. To shed the city’s dubious distinction as one of America’s fattest cities, the mayor put the city on a diet in 2008, challenging residents to shed one million pounds. The program is now in its third year and progress is chronicled on their website www.ThisCityIsGoingOnADiet.com. More than 40,000 people signed up and lost a total of 519,000 pounds.

Seattle, Washington

We’re guessing it’s because everyone in Seattle is jacked up on coffee and caffeine that  82 per cent of residents in this city find the energy to exercise. This stat coincides with the state average of 81 per cent of residents who reported that they exercised in the past month. The result: One of the lowest obesity rates in the country, at 27 per cent. Recently, the state also launched a snack attack of a different kind, one that put items like candy, gum, beer and bottled water subject to a sin tax. The new law that kicked in this summer has been criticized, however, for its arbitrary and confusing criteria in defining candy: Kit Kat bars are exempt from the tax, while Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups do not. Does peanut butter not fall under the vegetable food group? Give me a break...

Texas. All of it.

It’s really true. Everything – and everyone — is bigger in Texas. According to a slew of lists and studies, this lone star state is home to an inordinate number of America’s fattest cities: Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso, and Corpus Christi. Not only is hair bigger here, so are dinner proportions. Texas barbecue comes in a variety of sizes that range from small cow, medium family and large herd portions. Walk Score, which ranks the most walkable cities in the U.S., also gave failing grades to many Texas cities for being car dependent and being amongst the least walkable locales in the country. According to the Centre for Disease Control, 30 per cent of Texas are clinically obese.
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