Lessons from the 10 Least Obese States in the US

least obese statesThe annual most and least obese states report came out this week, a set of statistics I always find oddly interesting. It’s never a surprise that the healthiest states in our country are also some of the most beautiful geographically: Hawaii, California, and Colorado, to name a few. I mentally add these top 10 states to places I want to visit and/or live one day if I were ever forced to move out of my beloved Carolina home. I’m immediately drawn to the way the community gravitates towards healthy living. What I love most is that their surroundings allow them to embrace such a lifestyle, with lots of outdoor activities, access to fresh and local foods, and walkable cities and neighborhoods.

This year’s top 10 least obese (and coincidentally, healthiest) states are: Montana (the clear winner at 19% obesity), Colorado, Nevada, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Mexico, California, Hawaii, and New York.

For comparison’s sake, the most obese states were Mississippi (ringing in at 35.4% obesity), West Virginia (the winner — or is that loser? — for the past two years), Delaware, Louisiana, Arkansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Ohio, Kentucky, and Oklahoma.

The top 1o most obese states all clocked in with over 3 in 10 obese residents, ranging from 30.5% to 35.4%. The 10 least obese states all scored under the 24% mark, or 2 in 10 obese residents.

Why does all this matter? It’s not as much about the weight as it is the correlation to health. The most obese states also ranked as the states with the most chronic disease, including all of the biggies like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, heart attacks, and even depression. The least obese states had the least disease.

Whether you’re looking at it from a weight or health perspective, we can all strive to mimic these top scoring states. So, what is it that they have in common that the other states are lacking, and how can we replicate it if we don’t happen to live there? Let’s take a look.

Better diet and exercise 

Surprise, surprise! Two-thirds of the residents reported “eating healthy all day yesterday,” almost 60% ate 5 or more servings of fruits and vegetables at least 4 days out of the previous week, and over 55% exercised for at least half an hour 3 days or more the previous week.

Outdoor Activities

What do states like Colorado, Hawaii, California, and Montana bring to mind? Outdoor adventures like surfing, hiking, skiing, and horseback riding. These states are lucky enough to facilitate exciting opportunities for physical activity. While it may be easier to do those things in states like these, it doesn’t mean we’re out of luck if we don’t live there. It might just take a little more work to find the chance to participate in such adventures. Try indoor rock climbing, indoor or outdoor swimming pools, or indoor trampoline parks. Take advantage of the seasons in your state, and jump at the opportunity to go canoeing in warm weather or skiing in the cold.

Walkable Cities/Neighborhoods

There’s a correlation between cities that have the most people that walk or bike to work and lower obesity rates, so it’s no surprise that some of the most walkable cities in the country reside within states on the least obese list. Some of those cities include Boston, Massachusetts; Syracuse, New York; New Haven, Connecticut; Berkeley, California; and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Challenge yourself to find a safe route to walk or bike to work, school, or the grocery store, even if it’s not every day of the week. If that’s not possible (as is the case for many places), try making up for the lost steps somewhere else. Take a lap around the office every hour, park farther away from the store in the parking lot, take a walk around a park or neighborhood in the evening. Try wearing a pedometer to help challenge and motivate you to get those steps in. The goal: 10,000 steps per day.

Access to Fresh/Local Produce

Easy access to quality fruits and vegetables makes buying it and eating it more likely — not to mention it’s easier on the budget. Farmers markets tend to provide high quality produce as well as cheaper produce, making it more feasible and more desirable for residents to purchase it. Many of the least obese states also report the greatest number of farmers markets, including California with more than 800, New York with over 600, and Massachusetts with over 300.

To find a Farmers’ Market in your area, visit the USDA’s Farmers Market Search. If it’s not convenient to do all of your produce shopping there, consider visiting once a month to stock up or see if they can connect you with a CSA that delivers produce (and meat) periodically. If that still doesn’t help you out, try paying extra attention to fruit and veggie sales at your regular grocery store, especially for produce that’s in season. It tends to be cheaper and fresher, the latter often translating to more nutritious. If it’s possible, trying growing some of your own produce either in your yard, on a porch, or even inside next to a window.

Good Weather

What do Hawaii and California have in common, besides beautiful beaches? Beautiful weather. Good weather — meaning a pleasant temperature and dry skies — means you’re more likely to escape the confines of your home. That might mean engaging in an outdoor activity, like a walk in the park or a trip to the playground, or it might mean you’re more likely to bike to work or play tag with the kids. Rain and extreme cold are two things that keep us stuck inside. Hawaii and California consistently rank on lists of the states with the best year-round weather. Other states that tend to have good weather, at least during certain seasons, include Colorado, Montana, and New Mexico. Many of the states that get a lot of cold are at least equipped to handle it — those in Massachusetts and Colorado still get out and get active with multiple feet of snow on the ground.

There’s not much we can do to control the weather, but we can certainly make the most of the nicer days. Make an extra effort to get outside and do something active, or at least soak up a couple rays of sunshine. On days where you’re forced inside or have to use motorized transportation to avoid getting soaked, make a point to find an activity that can still get you moving. Trek to an indoor climbing gym or bounce house facility, for example.

Adequate Finances

Minnesota, Connecticut, and Massachusetts share spots in another top 10 list besides the least obese states: the richest states in the country. It’s no secret that having more money can give you access to more things, namely in this case high quality foods, gym memberships, and healthcare. But don’t fret just yet — some of the richest states are also on the most obese states list (more money, more junk food?). There’s not a lot you can do about your income, except perhaps get a new job or add to your resume with more education, but you can choose what you spend your money on. If eating healthy and being physically active are a priority for you, make your budget reflect that. Perhaps spend less on take-out and more on fresh produce. Spend less on luxuries like TV and cable and put aside more for a gym membership or purchasing equipment for a home gym.

Where does your state fall on the report? 


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