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City Wars: Why Denver Is More Fit Than D.C.

The annual American Fitness Index ranks Denver as the sixth most fit city, but there's more to the story.

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Yesterday, the American College of Sports Medicine released its annual American Fitness Index (AFI), which ranks metropolitan areas (cities plus their suburbs) on their fitness level. In 2014, Denver clocked in at a respectable fourth, but this year fell down to sixth. While I’m a bit outraged on behalf of the Mile High City, where going anywhere in athletic gear is considered acceptable, I was even more surprised at the region that topped the list both years: my former home, Washington, D.C.

No offense to all the high-powered political staffers who, admittedly, do get their morning runs on the Mall in at 4 a.m. every single day, but there is no way you can beat my granola-loving, ultramarathoning neighbors here in Denver on a fitness index. (When I visited the capital city a few weeks ago and hiked in Shenandoah National Park, some of my friends were wheezing 20 minutes in. This was at 3,000 feet of altitude, maybe.)

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I took a look at all the factors involved in the study and compared D.C. and Denver (see chart below for full details; orange is a win for Denver, yellow for D.C., and red if it’s a tie). Not all of D.C.’s wins are flawed—Denver’s mental health could use some propping up, for instance—but I did come up with a few unscientific reasons why the statistics used in this index don’t tell the whole story:

  1. According to the AFI, a whopping 21.9 percent of D.C. is parkland, with 95 percent of residents living within a 10-minute walk to a park. What these numbers don’t tell you: In D.C., a space is considered a park even if it boasts more marble than grass. According to the National Park Service, the White House and its grounds are technically a park. Plus, accessibility doesn’t always lead to use. The majority of these “parks” are often crowded with tourists, whom D.C. residents avoid like the metro (subway) on the night of a Nationals game (think: LoDo post-Rockies doubleheader).
  2. Speaking of the metro, one AFI category lists the percentage of people taking public transportation to work, which Denver obviously scores low in. (Why are no CDOT buses ever on time?!) While it’s admirable that D.C. is being environmentally friendly by promoting the metro as a form of transportation, the AFI is supposed to be measuring fitness. You don’t burn any more calories by sitting on the subway than in a car; if you did, America might have kicked its fossil fuel habit and reduced obesity levels by now. Bonus (or anti-bonus rather): D.C. traffic and parking is so horrible that most people have no choice but to take the metro into work, despite its expensive cost.
  3. Only 3 percent of people bike to work in Denver, according to the AFI, which seems inaccurate, considering the emphasis the Mile High City places on bike lanes. Granted, more (and safer ones) are being built as I type, but I chalk this statistic up to our growing suburbs. As more people are priced out of Denver proper, they’re moving to places like Castle Rock and Lone Tree, where biking to work is no longer feasible if your office is downtown or in the Denver Tech Center. Or people may live in Denver and work in Boulder, or vice versa; D.C. doesn’t have that kind of commuter exchange, even between NoVa (northern Virginia) and downtown. The kicker: Walk Score, which the AFI also uses to score how pedestrian-friendly each city is, ranks Denver as more bike-friendly than D.C.—but that only matters if you put stock in statistics.
  4. It also surprises me that a higher percentage of D.C.-ers eat more than two fruits and three vegetables per day than Denverites. My only theory here is that our propensity to binge drink means our normally healthy meals are too frequently replaced by beer, liquor, wine, and uh, more beer—and probably pizza. I think it’s safe to say we can leave that win to them.
  5. Recreational centers? Really? Who wants to be working out inside when we can be exercising outside on Colorado’s hiking trails, bike paths, rock walls, and oh right, mountains?
  6. But actually, we do need more swimming pools.

Follow editorial assistant Mary Clare Fischer on Twitter at @mc_fischer.

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