Las Vegas a bad fit for good health, surveys say

Las Vegans are out-of-shape, lazy smoke-a-holics who love drive-thru lanes and pizza by the slice, can’t find the park and don’t realize they can do more with fruits and vegetables than decorate the buffet table.

These are the conclusions, the facts, if you will, gleaned from a couple of recent surveys of the nation’s most fit cities.

Vegas, baby, ain’t among them.

Our hometown is the kind of place where you’ll find people driving around and around the Albertson’s parking lot in search of a space three steps closer to the one that’s currently open.

It’s the kind of place where if you use the word stairs, everyone thinks you’re talking about the escalator.

It’s the kind of place where most folks will sweat more in the two minutes it takes the car’s AC to kick in than they will in any form of exercise that day.

But don’t worry. Maybe it’s not your fault. Entirely.

“Our environment is very unsupportive of utilitarian physical activity,” said UNLV researcher Tim Bungum. “People don’t walk to the store. Don’t walk to school. And all of this has caught up with us.”

Bungum, a professor of health promotion, said cities like ours placed travel by car above all else when it came to planning things. Which is why we’ve got a six-lane highway every mile, cul-de-sac neighborhoods that make it impossible to walk around the block and, on average, less than half the public park space most other cities have.

“It’s the perfect storm for getting people to stop being active,” he said.

So where’s this data coming from? Some fly-by-night operation looking to gin up a little publicity? A pseudo-scientific group of whining wackos who hate us all?

No. The latest bit comes from the American College of Sports Medicine.

The group released a survey last Monday of America’s 50 fittest cities.

The Fitness Index, as it’s called, ranked the 50 largest metro areas using criteria such as the percentage of people who are obese, how often residents ate fruits and vegetables, how many of us smoke, and how much public park space there was.

Washington, D.C., came out on top. There wasn’t enough data to rank five of the cities, so it’s really a top 45 list.

Las Vegas ranked 42nd.

That lowly result followed one that came out a few months ago from Men’s Fitness magazine, which ranked our fair city as the fourth fattest in the nation.

The survey used some of the same criteria this new one used, plus a few others like how many fast-food joints we have, how much junk food we consume and how much TV we watch.

And while we’re at it, let’s take note of a couple more health grades.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness released state-by-state findings in March. It gave Nevada a D grade overall for dealing with the issue, and an F in some key categories.

“The state’s citizens deserve far better,” researchers wrote.

University of Nevada, Las Vegas researchers last month released results of a study that said, essentially, we’re failing our kindergartners. Too many are overweight, don’t go to the dentist and too frequently use the emergency room as if it were a pediatrician’s office because not enough of them have health insurance.

So, here we are.

What do we do about it?

Get off the sofa, first of all. Put your tennis racket in the trunk. Drive to the park. Knock yourself out.

“There’s no excuse,” said the formerly fat Jeff Gobel, who plays tennis just about every day at the Darling Tennis Center in the western end of the valley.

“This is one of the best facilities I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Gobel, a software engineer, used to weigh 300 pounds. He took off about 70 of those pounds, put a couple back on, but is working on it.

He’s 45 years old. He used to make excuses. He stopped doing that four years ago.

So now, he eats food in moderation and does copious amounts of exercise. He was at the tennis park in the middle of the afternoon the other day, for example.

But we’re all so busy, you say, there simply isn’t time to exercise.

Right?

It’s not that simple, said Bungum, the UNLV prof.

There are two basic kinds of exercise: the kind you plan on doing, like jogging, and the kind you just happen to do, like mowing the lawn.

Both of them give you benefits.

You could park a little farther away at the mall and walk. You could take the stairs now and again. You could even walk or ride a bike to wherever it is your busy life is taking you this weekend.

You could, but you probably won’t. And that’s partly because it just isn’t that easy, the whole this-city-is-designed-for-cars thing.

But it’s also partly because you’re just not thinking about it.

Bungum conducted an experiment in conjunction with the Southern Nevada Health District a couple of years back where he put signs around his building at UNLV with corny, motivational slogans like, “No time to exercise? Take the stairs.”

Believe it or not, this actually worked. More people took the stairs when there were signs up than when they weren’t there.

So all it takes, really, is to think about it.

The data reported in all those surveys that say we’re fat and lazy?

They’re about the population as a whole. They’re not about individuals.

And they don’t say individual behavior cannot change, even if the city itself will not.

Contact reporter Richard Lake at rlake @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0307.

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