A well-respected fitness report recently ranked the Oklahoma City-area dead last among the country’s 50 largest metropolitan areas, a distinction that should serve as a wake-up call for political leaders and health professionals here.

The report should not be ignored or qualified. It’s more than just another blemish on the area’s image or yet another obstacle to economic development, although it’s that as well. It’s a life-or-death issue for many people, and it affects everyone here.

The American Fitness Index, sponsored by the American College of Sports Medicine, uses a variety of calculations to determine a metropolitan area’s fitness level. Those include smoking rates, physical activity and health issues, along with the fitness-related infrastructure, such as parks, swimming pools and tennis courts. The numbers are used to create a data index and rankings.

The Oklahoma City metropolitan statistical area (MSA), which is comprised of Canadian, Cleveland, Grady, Lincoln, Logan, McClain and Oklahoma counties, received an overall score of 24.6. The top-ranked area, Minneapolis- St. Paul, received a 77.2 score. For further contrast, Austin, Texas, was ranked 16th and received a 57.8 score. Louisville, Ky., was ranked 49th in the report with a 29.

Oklahoma City has several problem areas. The smoking rate here is 22.8 percent of the population. This compares to a nationwide average of 17.9 percent. By contrast, the smoking rate for the Minneapolis area was 15.3 percent. That’s a 7.5 percent difference from Oklahoma City, and surely contributes to more disease here. The report notes higher rates of asthma and diabetes here when compared to national and MSA averages.

Another problem area is obesity.

About 28 percent of Oklahoma City’s population is obese, compared to Minneapolis’ 23.8 percent.

Oklahoma City itself scored below the MSA average in every infrastructure category in the report: the number of farmers’ markets, ball diamonds, dog parks, playgrounds, golf courses, parks, recreation centers, swimming pools and tennis courts.

According to the report, less OKC residents commute using alternative transportation (walking, bicycling, mass transit) than the MSA. Only 15.8 percent of Central Oklahomans eat five or more servings of vegetables and fruit per day, compared to the MSA average of 24.4 percent.

All this may lead some people to conclude it’s simply a matter of lifestyle choice, but when exercise and healthy choices are limited by city and state planning or by limited infrastructure, it becomes a community problem that needs a tactical and aggressive solution. The report argues, “We must create a culture that integrates physical activity into our daily lives.” The Oklahoma City area fails under this cultural rubric.

Oklahoma City’s huge sprawl and its development as a city planned around cars and fossil fuel long have been noted as a hindrance to walking and bicycling. The city’s lack of sidewalks in some areas and its dearth of exercise trails don’t help encourage physical activity, either. Building more sidewalks and exercise trails is really a no-brainer, but it needs to happen to improve the quality of life here.

Leaders here need to view the report as an emergency 911 call.

Hochenauer is an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and the author of the Okie Funk blog.

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