The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


Park Utilization and American’s Fittest or Fattest Cities: Are They Connected?

Written by
Karyn Hughes, MEd
Posted in
Move more

Thursday, Oct 24, 2013

Surely by now you have seen at list one listing of America’s Fattest Cities.  If you are like me, did you wonder what criteria were used to create this listing? Well I discovered it is the U.S. Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index that surveys 1000 Americans every day. The index is a partnership between Gallup and Healthways that began in January of 2008. Other news and magazine publications then use part of this information to publish the ‘Top Ten Fattest Cities in America’ or ‘The Top Ten Fittest Cities in America’.

The criteria includes six sub-indexes:

  1. Life Evaluation Index
  2. Emotional Health Index
  3. Work Environment Index
  4. Physical Health Index
  5. Healthy Behavior Index
  6. Basic Access Index
The Basic Access Index (#6) includes the following 13 items: access to clean water, medicine, a safe place to exercise, affordable fruits and vegetables; enough money for food, shelter, healthcare; having health insurance, having a doctor, having visited a dentist recently; satisfaction with the community, the community getting better as a place to live, and feeling safe walking alone at night.  It is this particular index that takes into account trails, open spaces, and parks.

So how important is access to parks and what role exactly do parks play in helping Americans stay active and contribute to a healthier waistline?

To answer that question, researchers (Evenson, 2013) used a global positioning system (GPS) and accelerometers to measure amounts and intensity of physical activity in adults visiting local parks.  Five U.S. states were chosen and 248 adults who were enrolled in or near 31 study parks participated in the study.  Participants were tracked for 3 weeks.  The number of park visits per week, minutes spent in physical activity (PA) and active travel (walking or bicycling to and from the park) were monitored.  Participants average age was 37 years ranging from 18 to 85 years;  56% were females, 26% were non-Hispanic black, and 15% were Hispanic.  The sample included a range of educational levels and a fairly even distribution of weight categories.

Results: Participants visited parks an average of 2.3 times per week, and the visits lasted an average of 42 minutes.  Overall, participants engaged in an average of 22 minutes of moderate activity and an average of 6 seconds of vigorous activity. Those that had active travel added an additional 4 to 7 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.

Discussion:  Previous studies on park use have been done through surveys or interviews.  The weakness of this method is recall bias and social desirability bias.  Another common method is simply observation of actual play and recreation.  Limitations on this method are time and expense.  Finally, another tracking method was park usage due to park services.  But most park services are geared to youth. This study attempted to accurately track and measure adult physical activity to and from the parks and while at the park. Although adults visited the parks relatively frequently (average of 8.8 times for the 3-wk period), only 8.2% of all moderate and 9.4% of all vigorous activity occurred within the parks.  The parks were functioning more as a destination for light and sedentary behavior and less as a venue for moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.  A Brazilian study (Para, 2010), found that public parks offering free supervised physical activity classes had high usage and a higher prevalence of vigorous activity compared with parks not offering similar programming.

Therefore, adding adult programming may be an effective strategy to reach nearby residents to increase physical activity.

Conclusions: Citizen’s in America’s Fittest cities like Boulder, Colorado and Colorado Springs, CO, often comment that the many trails, parks, open spaces, skiing, kayaking, and other numerous outdoor activities available in their community, are what attracted them to live there.  People who want to be active often look for an environment that supports their health lifestyles.  This data and others like it show us how access to healthy or unhealthy foods and access to parks and trails for the promotion of physical activity certainly contribute to which cities have the fittest or fattest citizens.  How much green space do you see in your community?  Do you use it?  How? How often?  How long do you commute to and from work?  Doesn’t this all contribute to the likelihood or not to eat better and feel like exercising? How does your city measure up? Check out the chart below and also search for different articles published in recent years about America’s Fittest and Fattest Cities and let us know some of your thoughts on the above questions on our Facebook page.

2011 Most Obese Metro Areas

Metro Area

% Obese

McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Texas


Binghamton, N.Y.


Huntington-Ashland, W.Va./Ky./Ohio


Rockford, Ill.


Beaumont-Port Arthur, Texas (tie)


Charleston, W.Va. (tie)


Lakeland-Winter Haven, Fla.


Topeka, Kan.


Kennewick-Pasco-Richland, Wash.


Reading, Pa.


Source: Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index
Evenson, K. (2013). Assessing the contribution of parks to physical activity using global positioning system and accelerometry. Medicine & Science In Sports & Exercise, 45(10), 1981-1987.

Parra, D. (2010). Assessing physical activity in public parks in Brazil using systematic observation. Am J Public Health, 100(8), 1420-1426.