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In new survey, city expansion takes on added weight

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 10, 2001


Houston, it seems, now can lay claim to more than the home of the Bush clan. It's also the latest winner of the dubious achievement award: the nation's fattest city.

Houston usurped Philadelphia last year as the city with the country's fattest population, according to the findings of the third annual survey by Men's Fitness magazine. In fact, four Texas cities appear on the list of the top 25 fattest cities (ranked among the 50 largest U.S. cities). That's more than any other state.

Let's pause between fistfuls of potato chips and Diet Cokes to consider our expanding waistlines. It is, after all, still the season of New Year's resolutions. And I, for one, am just as eager as the next person to shed at least 25 pounds and embrace a healthier lifestyle.

Businesses should encourage their workers to get more fit, too. Overweight

and inactive employees are far more susceptible to disease, injury and absenteeism.

It's no coincidence the influential American Cancer Society just began an all-out assault on fat through social and policy changes. The strategy is similar to the war on smoking, a health issue U.S. businesses have been a bit more willing to support.

But most companies do little, if anything, to help stem a growing epidemic of overweight American workers. Just stroll down the hall to the company-provided snack machine if you need proof.

In 1999, 27 percent of U.S. adults were obese, compared with 15 percent in 1980.

At this rate of expansion, corporations should really have a CEO (chief executive officer), a COO (chief operating officer) and a CFO (chief fat officer).

The Men's Fitness survey, which hit newsstands Tuesday, is revealing on a number of fronts. Of the top 25 fattest cities, the bulk are in the Sun Belt -- even though the warmer weather of those cities should inspire greater activity by their residents. Among cities in the Southeast, six (New Orleans, Memphis, Atlanta, Miami, Nashville and Charlotte) rank among the 25 fattest.

Two years ago, the magazine survey nailed New Orleans (home of Mardi Gras and its Fat Tuesday) as the fattest city. In 1999, Philadelphia (home of the Philly cheese-steak) won.

Houston tops the latest survey because the average resident watches too much TV, drinks too much, eats poorly, has a terrible commute, breathes some of the worst air in the country and has too few choices for recreational facilities, the magazine says in its February issue.

(No wonder the Bush family always wants to relocate to Washington.)

"In addition, the (Houston) climate is hot and muggy and the geography is flat and soggy," the editors write.

Hmmmm. That last line has a familiar ring. I just can't put my finger on it quite yet.

The survey tries to measure, city by city, the outside factors that make people more likely to be fit or fat.

To assemble the list, the magazine evaluated the nation's 50 largest cities with 15 equally weighted categories: obesity rates, recreation facilities, parks and open spaces, gyms/sporting goods stores, exercise/nutrition habits, alcohol use, TV viewing, junk food, air quality, water quality, climate index, geography, commute time, access to health care and smoking regulations/impact.

Thanks to the survey, now we know the answer to that pressing question: What do Houston, Detroit, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Columbus, Ohio, have in common? They are the quintet of couch potatoes.

The survey editors are not subtle.

"If fitness were measured in bowling balls and potato chips, Detroit would rule," they write. New Orleans combines fun with fat year-round, they say. And they note about Columbus: "Watching the (Ohio State) Buckeyes burns very few calories, while Brewery District partying can really pile them on."

The Men's Fitness issue includes a map dubbed the Blubber Belt.

A few cities tagged as flabby were quick to defend their image. Charlotte, which likes to think of itself as cutting edge and youthful, focused on the high survey marks for the city's parks and mild climate. The city had less defense of its high obesity levels and unhealthy air quality. Others blamed Charlotte's workaholic habits.

In contrast, the fittest cities in the survey encourage health and fitness by adding bike lanes to their roads, sponsoring walkathons and offering a variety of community programs to help people get out and get moving.

San Diego ranks as the nation's fittest among the 50 biggest cities. Western cities, especially those in California, dominate the fittest list. Eight of the 25 fittest cities are in California, while 13 of the 25 are in far western states. Only four of the 25 fittest are East Coast cities.

Jacksonville ranks 23rd in the country and is the only Florida city on the fittest list. In contrast, Miami ranks 17th among the top 25 fattest. Men's Fitness says Miami trounced Jacksonville in access to gyms, health clubs and even health care. But Jacksonville buries Miami in categories measuring exercise and nutrition, alcohol consumption, smoking, geography, average commute times and recreational facilities.

Impressively, when it comes to time spent in front of the TV, Jacksonville ranks dead last among cities measured.

And Miami? When it comes to consumption of junk food, it rates worst.

So, where's Tampa Bay in this national blubber contest?

You might say we were mercifully spared from either list.

The magazine survey chose to survey the nation's top 50 cities, not the top 50 metropolitan areas. The Tampa-St. Pete-Clearwater metro area ranks in the top 25 in the nation. But none of the three cities that make up the Tampa Bay area is big enough to rank among the top 50 cities.

No matter. Deep down, we know where we rank.

Remember Houston's excuses: ". . . the climate is hot and muggy and the geography is flat and soggy."

Now I recall who's said that line before. Me.

- Contact Robert Trigaux at comtrigaux@sptimes.com or at (727) 893-8405.

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