Men’s and Women’s Health magazines have ranked the ‘healthiest U.S. cities‘ for each gender, with Raleigh, N.C. topping the list for women and Burlington, Vermont topping the list for men. But what does that actually mean? And can you be healthy in an ‘unhealthy’ city?
Rankings like these—based on 30 different criteria, ranging from obesity and breast cancer rates to how often residents saw doctors to the percentage of adults who ate the recommended daily serving of fruits and vegetables—take a pretty comprehensive approach. But I still feel like these types of surveys often miss the mark, or at least don’t tell me enough about how possible it is to live healthily in different cities.
Why do rankings of ‘healthiest’ places—cities, states, countries—captivate our attention the way they do, anyway? Can you actually glean meaningful information from this data? I’m not sure. We can certainly see patterns like ‘diabetes is more common in certain southern states’ and infer that something about lifestyle in those states gives rise to more diabetes, right? But it tells us nothing meaningful about how easy (or not) healthy living and eating are in a given city, how possible it is to be a healthy, eco-friendly person there.
Women’s Health editor Sascha de Gersdorff acknowledges this.
“Southern states fare worse,” said de Gersdorff. “That’s not surprising. Obesity rates there are among the highest. The percentage of people who eat the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables is quite low.”
She said the bottom 10 also suffered higher rates of illness, including heart disease and cancer, compared to the top 10.
“But these are obviously averages and of course it is possible to be healthy there,” she added.
I guess stats like overall obesity rates and incidences of depression are supposed to, taken all together, stand as a proxy for how possible it is to live a healthy lifestyle in some place. But sometimes that just tells us where a city has been, not where it’s going.
I’d like to see cities rated not on how healthy residents currently are in some broad swatch of measures, but on that city’s potential for promoting healthy living amongst residents. While I guess it’s good to know how many residents in an area have heart attacks or get yearly Pap smears or work long hours, I’d rather know how walkable a city is; how many farmer’s markets CSAs or other opportunities for buying local produce it provides; how many healthy restaurants are in the area; whether the streets are safe for walking and biking and how prevalent grocery stores are (can I buy a tomato or onion without getting in the car?).
Big cities tend to vary by neighborhood in a lot of these areas, but stats like these could at least give you a fuzzy overall picture.
And because I know you’re curious: The magazine’s 10 healthiest cities for women include Raleigh and Burlington; Madison, Wisc.; San Jose, Boise, Austin and Virginia Beach. The 10 unhealthiest (for both sexes) include Memphis, Tenn.; Birmingham, Alabama; Philadelphia; Detroit; St. Louis; Kansas City; and both Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio. You can see the whole list—100 cities ranked—here.