When Ryan Martinez, 24, finished college, he found himself back in Minnesota, where he had gone to school, in a job in public relations. Though he’d also pursued jobs in Chicago and Los Angeles, Martinez says he ultimately picked Minneapolis because of its proximity to so many lakes. “I’m an avid bicyclist and since [Minneapolis] was aptly named the number-one most bike-friendly city in the nation by Bicycling magazine a couple years back, I love it here,” explains Martinez. “I bike to and from work every day. I feel great about it on multiple levels—health, being more environmentally-friendly, and because biking makes the city less expensive to live in than others I looked at.”
Martinez says he stops biking during the coldest months of the year, but he doesn’t worry about losing fitness: It’s easy to stay active, he says, with so many gyms all over the city at all price points, plus heated domes for running track or playing soccer. Even better, he says there are a “ton of trails and bike lanes that no city matches.” And Nice Ride, Minneapolis’ bike-share program is, in Martinez’s words “a sweet program that young people love and I know a lot of young professionals who use it to cruise around the lake or go to work.” Even the legendary winters aren’t a big problem for him: “They’re a bit too long, that’s for sure, but you can snowboard or cross-country ski if you’re into that,” he notes.
With the economy what it is (still awful for many), workers can’t always be choosers like Martinez, but if you do have options for where you want to live when looking for a job, it’s not a bad idea to consider where life might be the healthiest for you. For example, you might opt for a metropolis with less smog and fewer doughtnut shops and more bike trails and a lower obesity rate, to name a few criteria. The sites for a city’s mayor, health department, and its tourism portal are all good places to start your search; these resources make it easy to learn quickly about local options for recreation and public transportation, as well as things like tobacco laws and farmers markets.
George Flores, M.D, program manager for community health at the California Endowment, a private, statewide health foundation in California, offers these suggestions for finding a place to live that prioritizes health:
• Is the city walk- and bike-friendly? “We’re much better off walking than sitting in a car,” says Dr. Flores, so whether you’re traveling to work, seeing friends, or running errands, you’ll want to check a prospective city’s Walkscore; the site helps you find walkable neighborhoods. (Not surprisingly, New York City gets the highest rating—85.3—followed by San Francisco and Boston.) If you plan to stay a while, and even maybe start a family, Dr. Flores urges looking up neighborhoods that encourage kids to walk and bike to school and that create safe opportunities for strolling and pedaling, such as well-maintained sidewalks and traffic lights near schools.
• What’s the situation for public transport? If you want to walk and bike as much as you can and/or you don’t have a car, you’ll obviously need a way to get around. Many cities are not only increasing and improving their public transit options, such as apps that let you know the subway schedule in New York City and more covered bus shelters in Kansas City so riders can better avoid a chill. San Francisco and other cities have digital displays that show schedule updates at local train/light rail and bus stations, so you can easily see when the next bus or train is coming.
• Is smoking allowed? Not all cities have smoke-free laws. Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights offers maps to find out the regulations in states and cities across the U.S. New York City just recently celebrated its tenth year of smoke-free bars and restaurants; the law has cut the number of smokers in the city by tens of thousands, according to Thomas Farley, M.D., the city’s health commissioner. “The Smoke-Free Air Act made New York one of the healthiest and safest places in the world to live and work,” Dr. Farley said in a recent press release. In May 2011, New York City expanded smoke-free air to include its parks and beaches.
• Does the city “talk” about health a lot? If you’re looking at various official and local sites about a place you’re considering moving to, look to see if you notice any themes. Perhaps you’re seeing a lot of mentions of good parks or well-maintained trails, or maybe there are ads or mentions for upcoming 5Ks or marathons (Active.com is a great source for finding fitness events in any part of the U.S.). “Finding many healthier ideas, programs, and attitudes makes it more likely that you’ll also be choosing a city with lower stress levels, which can reduce cancer and heart disease,” says Dr. Flores. And it may also indicate “social capital”—a city that’s livable and walkable typically means that its citizens have gotten together on initiatives like neighborhood watches to create social and community activities so people get to know each other, says Dr. Flores.
• How accessible are healthy foods, including farmers markets at parks and community centers, and locally-owned food shops, groceries, and restaurants? Ryan Martinez calls himself “an organic-foods type of guy, so all the local coffee shops and sweet trendy shops make it easy to feel like you are doing your body—and the world—a favor by staying healthy and buying sustainably/locally,” he notes. “Minneapolis has a massive culture of health-conscious and active individuals.”
• How accessible are places of worship? These can go a long way in adding a feeling of community spirit and a sense of belonging, especially if you’re new to the area and without friends or relatives nearby.
Once you’ve found a healthy place to live, you’ll want to do your part to make it even better, right? Consider using MindMixer, a community engagement platform that’s helping cities do all kinds of good things—including becoming healthier places for young adults—by connecting city leadership with residents to come up with new ideas and solutions to problems. Denton, Texas, used MindMixer to poll the community about banning smoking; the majority voted for a ban and it passed with overwhelming support in June 2012. And residents of Park City, Utah, suggested ideas via the site to improve economic development, quality of life, and sustainability in their city; one resident’s idea for a community composting program was implemented.
What do you think makes a healthy town? Where do you think the healthiest places to live are? Where would you like to live and why?