Where the Exercise Is

(Photo: SL Ratigan)

(Photo: SL Ratigan)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast tried to figure out what is the “best” exercise. Meanwhile, Richard Florida‘s latest post for The Atlantic Cities blog looks at state-by-state variations in exercise. When it comes to aerobic exercise, the coasts (and Colorado) win:

[P]articipation in aerobic exercise is most prevalent along the West Coast, in the Rocky Mountain states and the northeast, and far less so in the middle and southern portions of the country.

Colorado tops the list among states, with 61.8 percent of adults meeting the standard for aerobic exercise; Oregon is second (61.1 percent), followed by Vermont (59.2 percent), Hawaii (58.5 percent) and California (58.2 percent). On the flip side, the lowest levels of participation in aerobic exercise are found in southern states – Tennessee (39 percent), Mississippi (40 percent), Louisiana (42 percent), Alabama (42.4 percent) and West Virginia (43 percent).

The trends are similar for muscle-strengthening exercise.  Florida goes on to report on the various correlates of exercise — wealth, affluence, etc.  Interestingly, fitness participation also closely tracks political and religious divides — people in red states exercise less, as do people in more religious states.

Anne Pringle Burnell

I don't get the religious correlation.


It's because God wants them to drive SUVs & oversized pickups, and haul out quads to go hunting with :-)


"Just a month after making those New Year's resolutions, 36 percent will already have given up"

I know I should want everybody to exercise more, but that month or so the gym is packed with resolutionaries is hell, unless your schedule permits you to go midmorning or late at night. Can we get people to make resolutions to get off the machine between sets? Or at least acknowledge that it isn't your personal ****ing La-Z-Boy? I know - I should be doing free weights. Someday, maybe.

Roger Back

Really? You can't correlate the idea of all you gotta do is believe and heaven will be yours with an increased lack of personal accountability? Do note its a particular religion that's popular there, southern states aren't known for their Buddhism.


I totally get the religious correlation. Religious people believe god gave them the eggs and the bacon and will spare them the heart attack if they regularly go to church whereas the godless atheists must burn (calories in the gym) to achieve the same :)


I would think age and degree of urbanization would underlie many of the correllations mentioned in the report, including religion.


I believe that this can partially be explained by religion. Blue states tend to be more agnostic/atheist than red ones. Agnostics/atheists may perceive death as "the end", thus most of them will fear it. By fearing the death they try to avoid it as much as possible. Regular exercise tends to increase life expectancy.

On the other hand, most of the (truly) christians perceive death as another beginning (I'm being as simplistic as possible). Therefore, exercising is more costly because the death is not as feared otherwise.

It is naive though to believe that his explains all. I think it rather explains some of the phenomenon. One might also look at high school graduation rate among the youth and etc.


I don't think this explanation will fly. For one thing, as was noted above, it's not ALL religion we're discussing here, but one particular religion. That religion has a long history of disdaining things of the flesh - and IIRC that's fairly explicit in its scripture.

A second point is that at least for me, and I think for many people, postponement of death is not a major part of why I exercise. Most of my exercising - hiking, biking, skiing, and so on - are things I do primarily for the pleasure of doing them. The exercise is secondary, though it's also part of the pleasure. Other exercise, like weights & yoga, are done so that I can better do the things I enjoy.


I agree with you. I believe what I said partially explains this issue, not in total at all. It would be wrong to consider everyone's reason to exercise (or not) as just one single factor.

But I think the fact that people exercise because they enjoy is definitely true, but this is a subset of your those who exercise. And then we can go further and maybe assume that "enjoying exercise" can constitute a more or less fixed ratio of any given population in different US states. Is enjoying exercise nurtured or something you are born with? That would be also interesting to check.


I absolutely LOVE your podcasts.


I've lived in almost half of the states, including both Alaska and Hawaii. Thinking back, I'd say that I exercised more when I lived in blue states than red states. Blue states had more outdoor activities that I liked to do, and therefore ended up more active. Right now I live in Maryland, where this correlation is not holding true, but on average it has been.

Exercise in the south and middle states is something done by the young. On the coasts and mountian states, exercise is part of the adult life.


With the exception of WV, reduced exercise in the south is because - wait for it -
It's Too Dang Hot!
Even in the gyms.
We stop golfing when we no longer get "rooster tails" when putting.


Not quite sure what "rooster tails" are, but I think your fundamental problem lies in thinking of golf as exercise.


People living in scenic states with temperate climate love to do things outdoors, including exercise.

People living in hot, muggy, sweaty saunas (i.e., THE SOUTH) are less likely to go out running/jogging/biking in 100 degree 100% humidity.


Corinne McKay

Speaking as a Coloradoan, I do think there's a strong societal/cultural component to exercise. For example I ride my bike to and from work (20 minutes each way), work out at the gym for an hour twice a week, do a 20 minute yoga podcast 4-5 times a week, and ski, bike or hike for 5-6 hours at least one day on the weekend. But compared to what a lot of people here do, I'd say I'm somewhat of a slug; so in that sense, the fitness-oriented peer pressure is pretty intense. When you see retirees doing Ironman triathlons, or your office mate runs 15 miles before work a couple of times a week, it's an incentive to keep moving. I would assume that in the less fit states, the opposite is true: if everyone around you is totally sedentary, that becomes the norm.

Enter your name...

Everything here is self-reported. I've been wondering whether those self-reports are inflated more in places where the perception is that "everyone exercises" and less in places where "nobody exercises".

Enter your name...

What I'd like to see is a measure of fitness that is actually MEASURING FITNESS, not measuring activities that are believed to promote fitness.

That is, I want to see a definition of fitness that says something like "you are fit if you can walk a mile on flat ground in 18 minutes or less" or "you are fit if you can run up four flights of stairs without stopping" or "you are fit if you can carry twenty pounds of groceries" or whatever the useful measurement is. Presumably there would be several measurements.

And if you achieve this state, then you're "fit", regardless of whether maintaining that state took you five minutes or five hours of exercise each week. Similarly, if you don't achieve this state, then you're "not fit", regardless of the amount of time you exercise.

The reason I want this is because there are a lot of blue-collar people who actually get a lot of physical activity all day long but who never "exercise". The people who spend eight hours a day stocking shelves in a large store are actually getting eight hours a day of moderate exercise. Carrying a sledge hammer out to the pond to bust the ice so the cows can drink water in the winter is hard physical exercise, but the farmers in my family would never count that if someone phoned up and asked them how much "exercise" they get.

Consequently, I suspect that one of the geographic correlations here is with income/job skills. A direct measurement of fitness would address this problem.



I suspect that this would map to outside summer temperature/humidity...