Fitness Friendly Cities


While many of the articles in the eMagazine discuss places that are far removed from the big city,  where you live can also have  a big impact on the availability of recreational opportunities, on your access to them and on your health.  Last July we discussed a study that ranked cites for their recreation opportunities in a broad sense.  In this story, we’ll discuss a new study that looks specifically at how friendly cities are to people that are interested in personal fitness.

Considering the Data

Nick Wallace and SmartAsset, set about evaluating 293 of the largest cities in the U.S. for how friendly they are to people who are interested in fitness.  They collected the following data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

  • Commuters who walk or bike
  • Number of people employed in fitness-related jobs like nutritionists, trainers and the like, per 10,000 people
  • Number of sporting goods stores, recreation centers and fitness centers per 10,000 people
  • The percentage of restaurants that are classified as ‘fast food’
  • The hourly pay for personal trainers
Mt Sential rises above the University of Montana in Missoula. It's a popular place for hikers and joggers.

Mt Sential rises above the University of Montana in Missoula. It’s a popular place for hikers and joggers.

These metrics are intended to give some indication of how friendly a city might be for those that want to be fit.  Cities that make it easier for people to walk or bicycle to work are friendly to those that want to get their exercise that way.  The number of fitness-related jobs suggests the level of professional support people can find in the community.  Fewer fast food restaurants suggests an industry that caters to those more interested in their health.

The sporting good store metric looks like a chicken and egg situation. Are there more people recreating so there are more sporting goods stores or are there more sporting goods stores because there are more people recreating?  It really doesn’t matter because, either way, there are more people recreating and that’s the point.

The hourly pay for trainers is a bit tricky.  A higher hourly pay rate suggests a shortage of this kind of professional support.  While that may be good from the perspective that suggests a lot of people must want that service, it’s not so good when it suggests that there aren’t enough trainers around to offer the level of service residents might want at a price they can afford.  Further,  the number of trainers is incorporated in one parameter and the pay for those trainers is incorporated in another.  This increases the importance of trainers.   Perhaps recognizing this conundrum, Wallace only gave trainer pay half the weight of the other metrics.

Developing an Indicator for Ranking

Wallace combined all of these metrics through a weighted average into a single indicator that was then used to rank the cities.  The results:

  1. Madison Bicycle MapMissoula, Montana
  2. Boulder, Colorado
  3.  Corvallis, Oregon
  4. Bend, Oregon
  5. San Luis Obispo, California
  6. Madison, Wisconsin
  7.  Bellingham, Washington
  8. State College, Pennsylvania
  9. Boston, Massachusetts
  10. Fort Collins, Colorado


All of these cities except Bend (that has a branch campus of Oregon State University) are big university cities.  I suspect that this attribute has a significant effect upon the ranking because college students tend to commute on foot or bicycle more than others.  I suspect they also tend to have stronger interest in fitness than the general population.

Wallace adds: “None of the top 25 cities in SmartAsset’s study is located in a warm-weather locale. Cities in the Southeast, Texas and the desert Southwest tend to have below average numbers of fitness professionals and recreation centers. Likewise, in many of these cities, fast food joints constitute over half of all restaurants.”  If we were looking at rural areas, this might be attributed to income disparities, but remember, this is all about big cities where incomes tend to be higher.  It could simply be that the warmer climates, with oppressive heat during part of the year, make it less enjoyable to get exercise outdoors.

Many of the top ten cities are located in the west and more than half are in mountainous areas.  These cities are close to large expanses of public lands that offer many outdoor recreation opportunities.

If you take a look at the  chart of the top 25 cities,  you can see that the tendency that favors big university towns continues down the list.  Likewise the tendency that favors cooler climates.

You can also see that pay for trainers is all over the board with the highest pay for city 19 (Brideport, Connecticut) and the pay for the top-ranked city (Missoula, Montana) at about the median level.  This suggests me that trainer pay is just not a very good indicator, compared to the other metrics.

Using the Rankings

Bicycle to WorkIf you are looking to move to a city that better supports your interest in personal fitness,  you might start with the list of the top 25 cities and see which cities might match your other criteria the best.  If you are choosing a college you might want to check out the top 10 list and choose any one of those towns with a college that has the educational programs you want.

Beyond the big cities and university towns, you might want to evaluate smaller towns in cool climates that have access to a broad array of public lands, less busy streets, perhaps one sporting goods store and only a few great restaurants.  If they also offer some places for indoor exercise,  you’ll also be covered for winter fitness.

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