It’s been a long holiday season of sugared bacon and brown-butter cookies. Now begins the push to lose weight – the #1 New Year’s resolution. Weight loss isn’t only about willpower; your environment matters too: cheap food, suburban sprawl, and long commutes all contribute to America’s obesity problem. Which metros give you a fighting chance to get back into fighting shape? Instead of doing crunches at the gym, we’ve been sitting at our desks crunching the numbers to figure it out.
Because there are many ways to lose weight, we combined five different measures in our final ranking. Each of these measures reflects a different weight-loss strategy:
- Eat healthier food. This first measure looks at local food options. We used the ratio of “slow food” establishments (supermarkets, specialty food markets, and full-service restaurants) divided by “fast food” establishments (convenience stores and fast-food restaurants). Metros with more “slow food” and less “fast food” scored higher. San Francisco, New York, and Cape Coral–Fort Myers, FL, did best on this measure.
- Get to work on your own steam. By walking or biking to work, you incorporate more exercise into your daily routine. We used the percentage of workers who commute by walking or biking. Metros where many people live in downtowns near their jobs did well on this measure, as did metros with better weather. New York, Boston, San Francisco, Honolulu, Middlesex County, MA, and Portland, OR, had the highest share of workers getting to work on two feet or two wheels.
- Hit the gym. If you live 20 miles from your job or your town is snow-covered six months a year, you won’t be walking or biking to work, but you can join a gym. We used the number of gyms, health clubs, and fitness centers per 1,000 households. Suburban metros like Fairfield County, CT (next to New York), Middlesex County, MA (next to Boston), Long Island, NY, and Lake County–Kenosha County, IL (next to Chicago), have the highest density of gyms.
- Do more outside. Hate the treadmill? Then hike, ski, run, or surf. To get a measure of all of the outdoor sports opportunities in a metro, we used the number of sporting-goods stores per 1,000 households. Metros that do well on this measure include metros near mountains like Salt Lake City and Colorado Springs; beach areas like Ventura County, CA, San Diego, and Honolulu; and the outdoorsy Pacific Northwest metros of Seattle and Portland.
- Join a program. Don’t want to go it alone? Weight-loss centers offer education, counseling, and support. We used the number of weight-loss and diet centers per 1,000 households. Philadelphia, Orange County, CA, and Camden, NJ, have the highest density of these centers in the US.
These five measures all count equally in our final ranking. (Data on walking or biking to work come from the Census’s American Community Survey; all other data come from the Census’s County Business Patterns.) Note that we didn’t include any measures of whether or not residents are overweight or obese. We are looking for the metros that offer the best tools for people trying to lose weight–not the metros with the fittest, thinnest, or most beautiful people.
With all these measures combined, San Francisco tops the list among the largest 100 metros. San Francisco scores especially well for offering healthy food options and lots of local gyms, as well as having a high share of residents walking or biking to work. Northeastern big-city metros (Boston, New York, and Philadelphia) and suburban metros (Fairfield County, Long Island, Middlesex County, and Peabody) dominate the top 10 list. The best metros for losing weight tend to have expensive real estate: six of the top 10 metros have median price per square foot above $200.
In contrast, nine of the 10 worst metros for losing weight are in the Sunbelt. Las Vegas does poorly on all five measures. Four metros are in Texas, and two–Bakersfield and Riverside-San Bernardino–are in inland California. Only Akron, OH, is outside the Sunbelt.
The worst metros for losing weight are all relatively inexpensive. Whereas six of the 10 best metros for losing weight have a median price per square foot above $200, nine of the 10 worst metros for losing weight cost less than $100 per square foot. There are two reasons why the best weight-loss metros are more expensive than the worst ones: (1) expensive metros have higher-income households, on average, and these richer households have more spending power to support gyms, weight-loss centers, and expensive outdoor activities; (2) people will pay more to live in areas with better weather and those nearer to oceans or mountains, which offer more opportunities for outdoor activities and walking or biking to work.
What about smaller metros? Relative to the 100 largest metros, smaller metros have fewer gyms and weight-loss centers per capita, but healthier food options and more opportunities for outdoor activities (as measured by sporting-goods stores per capita). The top smaller metros for losing weight are Bozeman, MT, and Boulder, CO, followed by two more in Montana (Helena and Missoula), several in California (Napa, Santa Cruz, and Ukiah), Lebanon, NH, and Key West, FL. The worst smaller metros for losing weight are in the South and, like the worst larger metros for losing weight, tend to have much cheaper housing than the best metros for losing weight.
It all means that if shedding pounds is one of your 2013 New Year’s resolutions, your chance of success may depend on where you live. The metros that have more of the ingredients for losing weight–healthier food, two-legged commutes, gyms, weight-loss centers, and fun in the great outdoors–include San Francisco, Boston, and other metros large and small in Northern California, the Northeast, and the Rockies. You’ll have more of an uphill battle in Texas, the Southwest, and inland California. And while Vegas has its charms, it offers the worst odds for battling the bulge.
By Jed Kolko, Trulia