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Want To Know What The Fittest States In The US Are?

Isaac Robertson
Published by Isaac Robertson
Last updated: January 5, 2023

When you travel the country, one of the things you’ll always notice is that how fit and healthy people look on average will vary a lot. And where you live also has a major impact on how likely you are to be able to improve your fitness levels.

Having worked in the fitness industry as a personal trainer for over ten years, I wanted to find out if reliable data could actually back up my own perceptions of the fittest states.

That meant spending a few weeks diving into CDC data and many other sources to find up-to-date information on the healthiest states.

And the results surprised me a lot, especially when it came to the availability of access to gyms.

Key Findings

  • All of the states that rank high for the availability of health clubs per 100k people also rank high for low levels of obesity. The question is whether low obesity rates increase demand for health clubs or lack of gyms is a contributing cause to obesity.
  • Vermont is the fittest state overall, and one data point that stood out was that it also has the second-lowest density of fast-food restaurants. Looks like the temptation of junk food has a significant impact on fitness levels.
  • Polls conducted in all 50 states have gathered information about how people self-rate their overall health. This self-rated data doesn’t correlate with low fitness levels and could indicate a lack of education and knowledge of obesity and other health matters.
  • A common theme in the ten least fit states is that many people in those states ranked themselves very low for exercise participation. This includes Mississippi, which ranked lowest for inactivity levels and is the overall lowest state for fitness.

The Surprising Facts About Fitness Data

To come up with a list of the fittest states, we decided to focus on six key data points.

We used reliable data to rank all 50 states for each of these data points and then assigned a score based on the ranking.

Let me show you the data we used.

1. What’s Up With Adult Obesity?

Checking their stomach with a tape measure

Background

The Centers For Disease Control (CDC) maintains data on overall obesity levels for each state based on body mass index (BMI) [1]. The overall obesity rate for the entire country is 32%, and no state has a rate under 20%.

With obesity being a critical indicator of overall health and fitness levels, this was the first point of data we collected.

Results

Based on the information provided by the CDC, we identified these as the five fattest states:

  • Mississippi (39.7%)
  • West Virginia (39.1%)
  • Alabama (39%)
  • Louisiana (38.1%)
  • Indiana (36.8%)

And the five least obese states are:

  • Colorado (24.2%)
  • Massachusetts (24.4%)
  • Hawaii (24.5%)
  • New York (26.3%)
  • Vermont (26.5%)

Context

Comparing these data points to the overall fitness ranking highlighted an interesting point.

Only three of the five least obese states were on the overall top 10 fittest states. But all five of the most obese states were in the lowest 12 for the overall fit score.

So there is a definite correlation between obesity and low fitness levels, but there is more to achieving a great overall fitness score than just achieving a lower BMI.

2. Is Health Club Availability The Cart Or The Horse?

Row of dumbbells inside a gym and a person lifting a dumbbell

Background

Statistics about health club availability are a good indicator of the overall interest in staying fit.

To figure this out, we used statistics about the number of health clubs in each state and then weighted that data against the population size of the state [2].

Results

The five states with the lowest availability of gyms and other health and fitness businesses:

  • West Virginia (8.26 per 100k population)
  • Utah (9.36 per 100k population)
  • Kentucky (9.51 per 100k population)
  • Hawaii (9.96 per 100k population)
  • Mississippi (10.38 per 100k population)

The five states with the highest availability of health clubs:

  • Montana (19.18 per 100k population)
  • Connecticut (19.02 per 100k population)
  • Vermont (16.51 per 100k population)
  • Massachusetts (16.37 per 100k population)
  • New Jersey (15.74 per 100k population)

Context

What immediately stood out with this data is that higher availability of fitness clubs also correlated with lower obesity levels and higher overall ranking in our fit score.

And the highest-ranked state for health clubs (Montana) has twice as many health clubs per 100,000 population as the lowest-ranked (West Virginia).

The big question is whether an interest in health and willingness to get the fit drive up the number of available health clubs or whether having more health clubs available allows for more access to fitness-improving facilities.

It’s a chicken and egg scenario that you could probably argue for all eternity.

One consideration would also have to be the affordability of health clubs, as the lowest-ranked states also have a considerably lower average income. Accessing gyms involves making financial decisions that might prioritize other necessities higher.

3. Fast Food And Fitness Don’t Work Out

Top view of fast foods with statistics overlay

Background

One of the biggest temptations and barriers to getting and staying fit all comes down to what people eat. And the more tempting it is to resort to eating junk food, the more likely that people go down a slippery slope of eating bad food that makes them fat and sick.

For this analysis, we used statistics from 2021 that had an accurate count of so-called “limited-service restaurants” around the country [3].

Results

These are the states with the highest levels of fast food outlets available per 100,000 population:

  • Hawaii (106 per 100k population)
  • North Carolina (93 per 100k population)
  • Alabama (91 per 100k population)
  • Georgia (88 per 100k population)
  • Louisiana (87 per 100k population)

Lowest levels of fast food outlets:

  • Arizona (59 per 100k population)
  • Vermont (60 per 100k population)
  • Alaska (60 per 100k population)
  • Michigan (61 per 100k population)
  • Wyoming (61 per 100k population)

Context

Not surprisingly, junk food temptation seems to directly correlate to obesity and overall fitness levels.

It’s one of the stand-out data points for the fittest state in the country, Vermont, which also has the second-lowest concentration of fast food outlets.

Cheap and crap food with low nutritional value has become an increasing threat to health since the Covid pandemic, and it’s increasingly affecting young people [4].

4. Reported Days Of Poor Health Directly Ties To Fitness

A sick male and female in their homes using a tissue to wipe their noses

Background

The United Health Foundation tracks data about how people rate the number of days they have encountered poor health in the past month [5]. Reporting larger numbers of days where people felt sick has a significant impact on overall health.

And it’s important to understand the correlation to other data points like obesity and overall fitness.

health insurance

Results

These are the five states with the highest number of poor health days:

  • South Dakota (1.8 days)
  • Iowa (2 days)
  • Nebraska (2 days)
  • New Hampshire (2 days)
  • Wisconsin (2.1 days)

And here are the five states that reported the fewest number of poor health days:

  • New Mexico (3.3 days)
  • Alaska (3.1 days)
  • Nevada (3.1 days)
  • Alabama (3.1 days)
  • Oregon (2.8 days

Context

The differences here are quite staggering. Residents of New Mexico report, on average, almost twice as many days of poor health as the residents of South Dakota.

But when you look a bit closer at those rankings, you’ll notice something significant.

Self-rated poor health days don’t have a very strong correlation to the overall fitness levels.

Most of the top and bottom five states in this category are right around the middle range of overall fitness (Nebraska, Oregon, South Dakota, Iowa, New Mexico, Alaska).

This could be a significant indication that people lack critical knowledge and understanding of health and fitness indicators to accurately assess their own fitness levels.

5. Unfit People Have Very High Levels of Inactivity

Performing outdoor workouts

Background

Another important factor for our overall fitness and health score is the amount of physical activity people are getting. It’s one thing having lots of gyms available with people joining them.

But unless they are actually active on a regular basis, it doesn’t count for much.

To analyze this, we looked at CDC data based on whether people did any physical activity other than their regular work in the last month [6].

Results

Here are the lowest-ranked states for physical activity:

  • Mississippi (33.2%)
  • Kentucky (32.5%)
  • Arkansas (31.1%)
  • Louisiana (30.8%)
  • Alabama (30.7%)

And the highest-ranked states had considerably better data:

  • Colorado (17.7%)
  • Utah (18.2%)
  • Washington (18.4%)
  • Vermont (19.6%)
  • Oregon (20.7%)

Context

This is where there really weren’t any surprises.

First of all, the state with the highest levels of inactivity (Mississippi) has twice the amount of inactivity as the most active state (Colorado).

What else is interesting about these states?

Colorado is the second fittest state in the country, while Mississippi is the least fit.

Also, all of the five states with the lowest levels of activity on a monthly basis are in the bottom 20% for overall fitness. That shows how important regular physical exercise at home, outdoors, and at the gym is for overall health and fitness.

6. Self Rated Excellent Health

A person drinking a water and checking their watch

Background

The final input value for our health score is the self-reported levels of excellent health. People are asked how they would rate their overall health and given the option of poor, fair, good, very good, and excellent [7].

We focused our research on the excellent health data set in order to identify the overall fittest and healthiest states.

Results

These are the states with the lowest levels of excellent health:

  • Washington (13.7%)
  • Minnesota (15.2%)
  • Kansas (15.6%)
  • Ohio (17.2%)
  • Arizona (17.6%)

And here are the five states with the highest levels of excellent health:

  • Maryland (26.5%)
  • New Hampshire (25.7%)
  • California (25.2%)
  • Colorado (25.1%)
  • New Mexico (25.1%)

Context

What stood out for us in this data is that the five states with the highest rate of self-reported excellent health are all in the overall top ten on our fitness list.

But only one state in the overall ranking (Ohio) featured on the list of five worst states for excellent health.

This could indicate that a lack of health and fitness often go hand in hand with a poor understanding of what excellent health actually means.

It could also indicate a problem that people rate their health compared to others around them. And if people with moderately good health see lots of severely unhealthy people, they could be more likely to rate their health a lot better than it actually is.

What Are The Fittest States?

A visual wood map for the United States

Here are the overall state rankings based on our health scores:

  • Vermont
  • Colorado
  • New Hampshire
  • Montana
  • Wisconsin
  • Connecticut
  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota
  • Maryland
  • California
  • North Dakota
  • Idaho
  • Wyoming
  • Virginia
  • Nebraska
  • Michigan
  • Oregon
  • Maine
  • South Dakota
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • Iowa
  • Washington
  • Alaska
  • Pennsylvania
  • Texas
  • Delaware
  • Utah
  • Florida
  • Arizona
  • Kansas
  • Hawaii
  • South Carolina
  • Georgia
  • Illinois
  • New York
  • Missouri
  • Louisiana
  • North Carolina
  • Nevada
  • Rhode Island
  • Oklahoma
  • Tennessee
  • Arkansas
  • Ohio
  • Indiana
  • Alabama
  • Kentucky
  • West Virginia
  • Mississippi

The Intricate Web Of Fitness Factors

The one thing that stood out the most in all of our research is that the healthiest state, Vermont, consistently ranks well for obesity, availability of health clubs, absence of fast food outlets, and overall physical activity levels.

Solving the problem of low fitness levels involves more than solving one issue.

There is a need for more education on the importance of healthy eating and regular exercise.

And it has to become more accessible for people to access health clubs while not walking past a half dozen fast-food restaurants on their way there.

This data would show the end goal for the least fit states if they tackled these problems.


References:

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/prevalence-maps.html
  2. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1183595/health-clubs-by-state/
  3. https://www.statista.com/statistics/825076/number-of-lsr-s-by-us-state/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8459649/
  5. https://www.americashealthrankings.org/explore/annual/measure/PhysicalHealth/population/PhysicalDays_College/state/ALL?edition-year=2016
  6. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/data/inactivity-prevalence-maps/index.html#Location
  7. https://www.kff.org/other/state-indicator/adult-self-reported-health-status/?currentTimeframe=0&sortModel=%7B%22colId%22:%22Location%22,%22sort%22:%22asc%22%7D
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