Does Fat Shaming a City Work?

Every year, the American College of Sports Medicine releases its fitness index. But what does the project do besides give a city bragging rights?

Maybe the inspiring views are part of the reason for Washington DC's fittest city honor—like this run by the U.S. Capitol building in the National Police Week 5k. (Photo: Elvert Barnes/Flickr)

The American College of Sports Medicine recently released its fitness index, an annual report ranks the 50 most populous metropolitan areas in the United States and designates one lucky place as the nation’s “fittest.” This year Washington DC won that title and the headlines that go along with it, which made us wonder: What does this fitness index project do besides give a city bragging rights?

Launched in 2008, the index ranks metropolitan areas by a number of factors, including levels of chronic diseases, healthcare access, and community resources and policies that support physical activity. The index’s original mission was “to assist communities in their efforts to improve the quality of life and enhance their residents’ well-being” by giving those communities the data cited above, and providing updates so they could monitor their progress.

In 2011, that directive changed from handing over a report to actively helping slacker cities move up. That year, ACSM received a grant to pilot health projects in Indianapolis and Oklahoma City, two places with consistently low rankings. And in 2013, ACSM received $157,782 to “work with community organizations in Cincinnati, Las Vegas and Miami throughout 2014 to initiate locally driven health improvement efforts,” according to a press release. The grants came from the same place support for the index comes from: the WellPoint Foundation, the philanthropic arm of healthcare conglomerate WellPoint, Inc.

It’s too early to tell how well efforts in Cincinnati, Las Vegas, and Miami are going. But health in Oklahoma City and Indianapolis hasn’t improved much, despite ACSM-backed initiatives like Oklahoma’s Wellness Now, and Indianapolis’s Top 10 By 2025, which sought to increase physical activity, improve nutrition, and decrease smoking through outreach and fitness programs. (And, it must be noted, despite the OKC Million program in which Oklahoma City’s mayor challenged his citizens to lose a collective 1 million pounds. The city reached its goal in 2012 but still, somehow, collectively got fatter.)

According to the index, obesity in Oklahoma City has risen from 28.6 percent of the population in 2011 to 32.6 in 2014, though the percent of people smoking has fallen from 22.8 to 20. Obesity in Indianapolis also increased, from 28.2 to 30.1 percent of the population, while the percent of people smoking has remained about the same at 21.6. Even in this year’s winner city of Washington DC, obesity rates rose between 2011 and 2014, from 21.4 to 24.1 percent.

“The technical assistance program identifies actionable areas with the best evidence for improving health, focuses on doing the most good for the most residents—with a high priority on underserved populations—and works to make a community-wide impact quickly,” said executive director of the WellPoint Foundation, Lance Chrisman, in a press release. The goal is laudable. Unfortunately, the numbers seem to be moving in the wrong direction right now. 

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Lead Photo: Elvert Barnes/Flickr
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