Health mystery: Wash. bucks national trend, now less active

Jul 11, 2013

There’s some truth to Washington’s image as a mecca for the physically active. When it comes to exercise, several counties in the state rank in the top 50 out of more than 3,000 counties in the country. But that ranking hides a less flattering trend.

On the positive side, San Juan County continues to rank as one of the healthiest places in the world, and data shows people there tend to exercise more and live longer.  The northern counties on the Olympic Peninsula—home of Port Townsend, Sequim and Port Angeles—rank high. So do Whidbey Island and King County, compared to the national average. 

“There are a series of communities in the west—particularly  for men, but also for women—where levels of physical activity are high, and they were high a decade ago,” said Chris Murray, director of Seattle’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Counties in Wyoming, Colorado and California fit the same profile.

The IHME research team has just published several studies revealing trends in physical activity, obesity, and life expectancy (see interactive map of the findings).

The researchers were pleasantly surprised when it comes to how many people are getting the recommended amount of exercise. Most counties in America made progress over the past decade, between 2001 to 2009.  

Some counties made dramatic progress, notably in Kentucky.  

“So, [it’s] pretty good news in the sense that, it’s possible to change physical activity levels,” said Murray, in an interview.

Disturbing trend for Washington communities

But something mysterious happened in Washington state. Men, in particular, here are exercising less than a decade ago, while most of the rest of America made progress. Nearly every county in Washington went downhill, a few of them dramatically (such as Cowlitz county).

For women across Washington, the trend is less severe, with exercise rates staying about the same while women in other states were making big gains.

Researchers haven’t had time yet to investigate why Washington’s trend is going in the wrong direction. 

Overall, so far, none of the exercise trends have affected obesity rates or life expectancy. To combat the obesity epidemic, “focusing on physical activity alone probably won’t be enough,” said Murray.

The research points to food—a category with 14 components, from fruit to sodium—as the single biggest factor affecting health in America, even more than smoking.