It’s almost impossible to spend more than 15 minutes in Bend without hearing about its “healthy outdoor lifestyle.” Bend’s “healthy outdoor lifestyle” is touted ad nauseam by the locals, as well as the professional booster groups and the local daily newspaper, which seems to run stories about it at least five times a week.
How true is the “healthy outdoor lifestyle” claim? Like most other Bend boasts, this one appears to consist of a small kernel of truth wrapped inside many layers of puffery.
True, Bend is home to an unusual number of world-class athletes, especially endurance athletes – marathoners, triathletes, bicycle racers. They get a lot of attention from the media, and the implication is that their lifestyle and level of physical fitness are representative of the town in general.
But of course elite athletes are a tiny minority anywhere, even in Bend. How outdoorsy is the ordinary Bendite? Is he outdoorsier than most other people? And if he is, does that make him healthier?
Reliable numbers are hard to come by, but The New York Times has posted a cool interactive map that may furnish some clues.
The Gallup polling organization has been calling up 1,000 randomly selected Americans all across the country each day for the past three years and asking them questions about 20 different “well-being indicators,” including everything from how happy they are with their jobs to whether they eat fruit and vegetables. The numbers are broken down in the Times map by congressional districts.
Turns out that people in the 2nd Congressional District, which encompasses all of Eastern Oregon including Bend, actually are pretty outdoorsy – or anyway they get a fair amount of exercise, which isn’t quite the same thing, but close enough. Well over half of them – 56% – said they got at least 30 minutes of exercise on at least three of the previous seven days.
But this is only about average for the western third of the United States, where (according to Gallup) people exercise considerably more than folks on the East Coast or in the Midwest. The four other congressional districts of Oregon have almost exactly the same percentage of exercisers.
Ah, but are people in Eastern Oregon healthier because of all their huffing and puffing and grunting and sweating? Gallup’s numbers suggest they are not.
Asked if they “have health problems that prevent [them] from doing any of the things people [their] age normally do,” 26% of those polled in CD2 answered “yes.” That’s worse than any of the four other districts except CD4 (southwestern Oregon), which had 31%. And it’s worse than Southern California, where the percentages tend to run in the teens and low 20s.
27% of Eastern Oregonians reported they had been told by a physician or nurse that they had high cholesterol – again, more than in any other congressional district except the fourth, and more than in most areas of California. For diabetes and obesity the pattern was similar.
What to make of all this? One obvious point is that being outdoors will not, in itself, make you healthy. Sitting in a fishing boat drinking beer all day or riding around in a golf cart doesn’t do much for your health.
The other thing that jumped out at me while looking at the Times map is that if there’s one thing good health clearly seems to correlate with, it isn’t exercise – it’s money. The more affluent areas of the country (mainly those on the coasts and around large cities) generally scored better on the health questions than the less affluent areas, meaning primarily the inland, rural ones.
Lack of a good job and economic opportunity – and the likely concomitant, lack of access to necessary health care – may well be more hazardous to your health than couch potato status. So if health is what you're after, instead of moving to Bend for the “healthy outdoor lifestyle” you might be better off moving to LA or San Francisco for a healthy paycheck.
Update: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has just published new rankings that show Deschutes County as the seventh-healthiest of Oregon's 36 counties. We're below the national benchmarks for adult obesity and smoking, but way above the benchmark for "excessive drinking" (18% vs. 8%) and spectacularly above the benchmark for sexually transmitted infections (273 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 population vs. a benchmark of 83 cases). The data suggest that even more than climbing rocks and riding mountain bikes, folks in Bend like to get drunk and screw.