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Monday, February 15, 2016

Humphrey’s Peak From Buffalo Park, Flagstaff, Arizona

Looking across dry, winter grass at snow and pines on Humphrey Peak from Flagstaff, Arizona’s, Buffalo Park.
Is it any surprise that cities with beautiful mountains and great weather have fitter, leaner people living there than less appealing parts of the country? I mean, look at that view?! Who wouldn’t want to walk the 2 mile Nate Avery Trail in Buffalo Park every day? It’s a great place to live, if you can afford it ...

A few years ago, I heard about a Gallup study, which found that Boulder, Colo., had the leanest population in the United States. It’s a lot like Flagstaff: right at the base of the mountains and with great weather.

I spent the summer of 2009 at a friend’s in Boulder. The weather was nice most days, and I could be on a mountain trail 15 minutes after leaving my buddy’s place. With mild weather and beautiful, peaceful hiking trails, is it any wonder I walked just about every day and even lost some weight? Most people in town seemed pretty active, and only 12.4% of the population is overweight. The surroundings encourage activity.

But in Boulder, health also seems to be a combination of exercise opportunities and social status. Boulder has the nation’s most-educated population – 59% have a college degree – and is among “America’s Richest Cities,” with average annual household incomes at $68,637.

Compare that to where I’m from, the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, which includes the Brownsville-Harlingen and McAllen metropolitan areas. These cities have the lowest educational attainment and average household incomes of any metropolitan areas in the USA. McAllen is Numero Uno of “America’s Poorest Cities,” with an average household income of $31,077 – and nearly 40% of households below the poverty line. Brownsville comes in at Number 2. These cities also have some of the nation’s highest “fatness” levels, with 33.8% of the population in McAllen being overweight, for example.

I can also tell you that South Texas is an inhibiting place to exercise outdoors. The weather is hot and muggy much of the year. The scenery is bland. And you don’t have many places to safely and peacefully exercise outdoors. (Thankfully, that has improved over the last few years as bike trails have been built and expanded.)

How do access to outdoor beauty and socioeconomic status combine to encourage or discourage good health? Do wealthier, better-educated people have better access to healthier foods? Do poorer, less-educated people eat worse? Do the better off usually get to live in places that are outdoorsy? Are poor folks just too overworked, tired, and despondent to get out and get sweaty? Do poor folks end up living in places where being outdoors just sucks? Do wealthier people prioritize healthful lifestyles more? I’m not sure.

What is clear is that you’re statistically likelier to be leaner and healthier if you get an education, get a good job, and live someplace where you love to hike, bicycle, swim, kayak, or generally engage in outdoor sports. And if those things aren’t available, good health is going to be harder to attain.

Below is an interesting TED Talk about the relationship between health and social inequality, among other things.