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Fittest U.S. city: Minneapolis

Eric Miller / Reuters file

Steve Tannen wears heavy clothing to protect himself against freezing wind chills as he practices for an upcoming bike race in Minneapolis. His city ranks No. 1 for fitness, according to the American College of Sports Medicine

Minneapolis, with its many parks, playgrounds and recreation centers, ranks No. 1 in the U.S. for fitness and Washington D.C. ranks a close second, according to a survey released on Wednesday.

Detroit and Oklahoma City come in at 49th and 50th according to the American College of Sports Medicine.  And a second survey released Wednesday finds Minnesota also leads in senior health. The two studies show Americans sure can’t blame climate for their couch potato tendencies – and they point to a fairly simple solution for living a long and healthy life: exercise.

“We asked if we have a built environment that supports exercise, does the population exercise? And the answer is yes,” says Walter Thompson, a professor at Georgia State University who chairs the advisory board for the College’s  American Fitness Index.

The findings demonstrate that Americans can’t use weather as an excuse to be couch potatoes. “Minnesotans sure could use that as an excuse, but they don’t,” Thompson said in a telephone interview. It’s the third year in a row that Minneapolis has ranked No. 1 in the survey.

“What Minneapolis does so well – they are firm believers in the ‘if you build it, they will come’ attitude,” Thompson says. “They spend a lot of money on their parks. They spend $227 per capita on their parks.”

And that’s even knowing that snow is going to put the parks out of commission for many days of the year.

“They have five baseball diamonds per 10,000 inhabitants,” Thompson added. There are many dog parks, golf courses and playgrounds, as well as indoor recrreation centers with running tracks, basketball courts and gyms. “They make their parks inviting, they make their parks safe,” he added.

“So you can see they put their money where it needs to be to create the healthy environment.”

In contrast, Oklahoma City spends just $62 per capita on its parks. “That translates to fewer baseball diamonds, (fewer) parks, (fewer) playgrounds,” Thompson says.

“If you don’t provide the environment for people to exercise in, that is going to translate to lower personal health indicators,” Thompson said. And the states with lowest fitness levels have more people with diabetes, with obesity, and a higher percentage who smoke, he said.

For the study, the ACSM worked with the Indiana University School of Family Medicine using U.S. Census data, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, The Trust for the Public Land City Park Facts and data.

The CDC survey asked people how much they had exercised in the past month – the best way there is to estimate fitness without actually watching people, Thompson says.

Public policies are vital, says Thompson, who lives in Atlanta, ranked 21st in the survey. In 2008, Atlanta’s city government closed 22 recreation centers to save money. In 2010, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed started to reopen them. “He’s just about done it,” Thompson says. Atlanta ranked 14th in the index in 2008, fell to 15th in 2009 and 18th by 2011.

The findings fit right in with another survey – this one looking at senior health.  Again, Minnesota ranks at the top.

“Minnesota ranks first for senior health, followed by Vermont (2), New Hampshire (3), Massachusetts (4) and Iowa (5),” the  United Health Foundation says in its America’s Health Rankings Senior Report.

“The five least healthy states for senior health include Mississippi (50), followed by Oklahoma (49), Louisiana (48), West Virginia (47) and Arkansas (46).

Fitness is a big factor in the report, but not the only one.

“Minnesota’s strengths include high rates of annual dental visits and creditable drug coverage, relatively high availability of home health care workers, as well as a low rate of seniors at risk of going hungry,” the United Health Foundation said in a statement.  “Minnesota’s ranking also reflects a low rate of hospitalization for hip fractures, more able-bodied seniors and a large number of seniors who report being in very good or excellent health.”

In Mississippi, many seniors live below the poverty level, many report poor health and there’s a low rate of annual dental visits. Mississippi also ranks No. 1 in obesity rates.

But Iowa has high obesity rates and still manages to rank in the top five states. “Iowa has one of the lowest numbers of poor mental health days per month at 1.5 days in the previous 30 days,” the report says. And older Iowans are the most likely of all Americans to get a flu vaccine – more than 70 percent do

Here are the Fitness Index rankings for the top 20 U.S. cities. You can find the entire list here

Metropolitan Area / 2013 Score / 2012 Rank

1. Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn. /78.2 / 1

2. Washington, D.C. / 77.7 / 2

3. Portland, Ore. / 69.8 / 7

4. San Francisco, Calif. / 68.7 / 4

5. Denver, Colo. / 68.1 / 9

6. Boston, Mass. / 67.1 / 3

7. Sacramento, Calif. / 66.8 / 6

8. Seattle, Wash. / 66.7 / 8

9. Hartford, Conn. / 66.6 / 5

10. San Jose, Calif. / 66.4 /12

11. Austin, Texas / 63.6/ 10

12. Salt Lake City, Utah/ 62.5 / 13

13. Cincinnati, Ohio / 61.4 / 20

14. San Diego, Calif. / 61.3 / 16

15. Raleigh, N.C. / 60.3 / 14

16. Pittsburgh, Pa. / 59.9 / 15

17. Baltimore, Md. / 59.5 / 19

18. Virginia Beach, Va. / 58.3 / 11

19. Cleveland, Ohio/ 55.1 /23

20. Richmond, Va. / 55.1 /17