Unfit city

Maybe part of the problem is that it’s dangerous to walk in Anchorage/Craig Medred photo

Alaska’s largest city came in below average for fitness in the American College of Sports Medicine’s just-released survey of the health of the 100 largest cities in the United States, and it’s hard to avoid wondering how much worse the ranking might have been without a lot of big, fat Anchorage liars.

The city’s rank of 56th was inflated by the 81 percent of Anchorage residents who reported “exercising in the previous month.” 

That’s above the average of 77.6 percent for the 100 cities, and it the report comes from a community where 31.6 percent of the population is reported to be “obese.”

The percentage of obese in Anchorage is also above the 1`00-city average of 30 percent. And these are not people who are overweight, but people who are obese, which is defined by a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher. 

BMI is a less than perfect way of assessing obesity. It has long been recognized as biased against muscular people with large, dense bones. 

But it generally defines people who’ve packed on a lot of excess weight. To reach a BMI of 30, a 5-foot, 4-inch woman has to weigh 174 pounds or more, according to the American Cancer Society.

You’ll see few people – male or female – of this size and shape on the ski, bike or running trails of Anchorage, and not many more in local gyms, which is not surprising.

Various studies have found the obese exercise substantially less than those who are overweight or of normal weight.

A 2018 study that followed 70,000 Norwegian college students from 2010 to 2018 found “the less frequent he or she exercised, the higher the odds of having a BMI over 30.”

This is not surprising either, and it’s not the fault of those overweight. It’s not much fun to exercise when you’re obese

Healthy weight for someone 5-foot-4 is 110 to 140 pounds; so being obese would be equivalent to hiking, bike, running, etc. while carrying a backpack of 34 to 64 pounds.

Given this, you have to wonder:

If about a third of the Anchorage population is likely to be exercising very little or not at all, how much must the other two-thirds be exercising in order to boost the total population level to 81 percent?

Or maybe Anchoragites are counting 12-ounce curls or twisting the steering wheel left or right as “exercise.”

Questionable data

As the authors of the American Fitness Index do concede, “the indicators used for personal health were based on self-reported responses to the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey and are subject to the well-known limitations of self-reported data.”

They then assume that “since this limitation applies to all cities included in the rankings, any biases should be similar across all communities, so the relative differences should still be basically valid.”


But if you actually live in auto-centric Anchorage, it’s pretty obvious the exercisers are a minority, not a supermajority as the survey would indicate, and it is just about impossible to believe 81 percent are exercising monthly.

Why would they?

Anchorage is unfit by design. This isn’t Boston where nearly one in five residents can walk or bike to work. The Anchorage percentage less than about half that at 2.1 percent, which is less than half of the already low, 100-city average of 4.5 percent.

USA Today spun the release of the newest fitness report with a headline that said “Being fit, losing weight is a powerful force against COVID-19, but cities have to do more.”

That’s an opinionated and biased view, but it also happens to be accurate. There should be some sort of special award given U.S. urban planners for the role they have played in Covid-19 deaths in this country.

They long ago allowed the motor vehicle to dictate urban design to the point where it has become inconvenient, if not problematic, to get around in any way other than by car or truck.

They zoned neighborhood groceries out of business, pushed traffic to faraway shopping centers, filled subdivisions with dead-end cul-de-sacs that block a direct line walk from one’s home to local shops or recreation areas, and generally made it more difficult to walk or bike anywhere.

The results are writ large in the way kids now get to school. In 1969, about 50 percent of them walked or rode a bike to school, according to the Safe Routes to School program.

Today the number is under 15 percent, and childhood obesity is at an epidemic level, which dooms many kids to a life of medical problems and an early death.

Americans have now been paying the price for decades with their premature deaths. A 1999 study published by JAMA Network concluded the deaths of about 280,000 Americans per year could be linked to obesity in the 1990s. 

Since then, the number of obese Americans has only increased.

Lack of fitness worse

Sixteen years after the obesity study in JAMA (formerly the Journal of the American Medical University) researchers at the University of Cambridge reported that lack of fitness was an even bigger problem.

“The study of over 334,000 European men and women found that twice as many deaths may be attributable to lack of physical activity compared with the number of deaths attributable to obesity” is how Science Daily summarized the study at the time. 

“Physical inactivity has been consistently associated with an increased risk of early death, as well as being associated with a greater risk of diseases such as heart disease and cancer. Although it may also contribute to an increased body mass index (BMI) and obesity, the association with early death is independent of an individual’s BMI.

The researchers found that the greatest reduction in risk of premature death occurred in the comparison between inactive and moderately inactive groups, judged by combining activity at work with recreational activity; just under a quarter (22.7%) of participants were categorized as inactive, reporting no recreational activity in combination with a sedentary occupation. The authors estimate that doing exercise equivalent to just a 20-minute brisk walk each day – burning between 90 and 110 kcal (calories) – would take an individual from the inactive to moderately inactive group and reduce their risk of premature death by between 16 to 30 percent.”

In the wake of that study, U.S. fitness just continued its downward spiral. And then along came Covid-19.

“The COVID-19 death rate for Arlington, Virginia, the nation’s fittest city for the third year in a row, is 56 per 100,000 population,” wrote USA Today’s Jayne O’Donnell.

The national, Covid-19 death rate, according to the John Hopkins University of Medicine, is 310 per 100,000 – more than five times higher. 

But who cares? It’s easier to get vaccinated than to get up and move, isn’t it?

And in the case of Alaska in particular, the state has been a good hideout throughout the pandemic. Fit or not, the state death rate of 174 per 100,000 is the third lowest in the nation.

That might be twice as high as for Arlington, but Hawaii and Vermont are the only states with lower death rates at this time.

Why Alaska has been so lucky remains a mystery, but it’s hard to believe it’s because most Alaskans are fit.













5 replies »

  1. Craig, been reading you since the ADN Outdoors section in 1986. Being roughly your age, could relate to much of it, not all of course.

    Many, many, many years ago you had a perfect column on how you were all of a sudden learning that you can’t just bike/run/hike off last night’s meal the way you used to, that you had to actually worry about eating less, etc. It seemed like kind of a first rude awakening on your part, when that I was experiencing too. I’ve searched online for this particular column for years, with no luck. Do you have any idea which one I’m talking about, and if so, is there any way for me to access this?


  2. First time failed so here again is some reading on what might make for fitter cities ::

    Marohn, Charles L.. Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town. United Kingdom, Wiley, 2021.

    Montgomery, Charles. Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. United States, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.

    Schmitt, Angie. Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America. United States, Island Press, 2020

    Speck, Jeff. Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places. United States, Island Press, 2018.

    • For the information you entered:
      I am 70 and 225 and can still do 30 miles in 2 hrs on my bike. Yes, I would love to lose 25# but having weighed 175 at 16 with almost no body fat and half the musculature, I hope I never shrink to that lol.

      So yes, I am obese by definition, but the standards as promoted by CDC et al lean (yep, a pun!) towards Kenyan runners. To compute a more adequate picture of one’s body one needs to differentiate among bone,fat, and muscle, and BMI ignores that, which ends up with people who ARE obese arguing that they are not 🙁
      “Height: 5 feet, 10 inches. Weight: 225 pounds. Your BMI is 32.3, indicating your weight is in the Obesity category for adults of your height. For your height, a healthy weight range would be from 129 to 174 pounds.”

  3. Show those BMI charts to anyone that is overweight and the first words out of their mouths is something like, “that’s not right!”. Obese is worse than profanity for the obese. Classical example of denial and denial is a powerful defense mechanism.

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