Runners in the San Francisco Marathon helped make San Francisco one of the most active and skinny counties in the country. Photo: edwardopilopilous/ Flickr
Runners in the San Francisco Marathon helped make San Francisco one of the most active and skinny counties in the country. Photo: edwardopilopilous/ Flickr

by Kelly O’Mara and Olivia Hubert-Allen

It turns out it’s not just your imagination that the Bay Area is full of skinny, active people.

A study released on July 10 from Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington measured the rates of activity, obesity, and longevity county-by-county across the country. The Bay Area found itself at the top of the list, particularly the men of San Francisco and the women of Marin County.

According to the data, San Francisco had the fewest number of obese men among its population at just 18.3% — well ahead of runner-up New York at 19.1%. But, San Francisco women were just the seventh-skinniest in the country, with 20.9% of the population showing up as obese. Marin County women also cracked the top 10, with 21.1% obesity rate. But both counties’ women fell behind the female population of Falls Church City, VA at 17.6%.

(Use the study’s data visualization tool to see how obesity, activity, life expectancy and hypertension rates have changed from 2001 to 2011, the last year with data. Prepared to be overwhelmed.)

From: Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington
From: Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington

Marin women also claimed the Bay Area’s second national title: the longest- living women in the U.S. The women in the North Bay county can expect to live 85.02 years — five years longer than the national average and over a decade longer than the county with the shortest female life span in the U.S., Perry, Ky. at just 72.65 years. While Marin women might live a fraction of a year longer than their East or South Bay peers, Bay Area women across the board can count on long (and, evidently, active) lives. Santa Clara County was fourth nationwide at 84.54 years, San Francisco was sixth at 84.38 years, and San Mateo County was ninth at 84.3 years.

The men don’t live quite as long, with only Marin and Santa Clara counties making the top ten at fifth and ninth with 81.44 years and 80.98 years, respectively.

The Bay Area appears to be bucking the trend nationally. From the study:

More people are running, biking, and exercising in other ways in hundreds of US counties ….

The rise in physical activity levels will have a positive health impact on Americans by reducing death and chronic disability from cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. But the trend has had little impact so far on stopping the rising tide of obesity. As physical activity increased between 2001 and 2009, so did the percentage of the population considered obese. Obesity and risk factors from poor diets, smoking, and high blood pressure all are causing a drag on US life expectancies, which increased slowly compared to the country’s economic peers between 1985 and 2010.

So why exactly is the Bay Area — and, more specifically, certain counties in the Bay Area — doing so well in this regard?

According to the Mercury News, it has to do with rates of activity– the Bay Area ranks among the highest in the country. Also helping: access to resources, fresh vegetables, and preventive medical care — all of which an more affluent counties can afford.

“The main drivers for premature death and disease are preventable,” [Bill Heisel, spokesman for IHME] said, through proper diet and exercise. “And the Bay Area is doing far better than the state and national averages” at staving off physical decline.

A glimpse of the national map shows a confluence of affluence and health. Like the Bay Area, regions of the U.S. with strong economies — such as the suburbs of New York City, Washington, D.C., and Seattle — tend to have high access to health care, open space, fresh fruits and vegetables and educational campaigns to reduce smoking, drinking and obesity.

Really want to dive into the differences between counties? Use the county rankings tool from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute to compare STD and drinking rates, among other fun qualities.

Here’s the life expectancy data from the University of Washington study:


County Life expectancy estimates, men, 2010 Life expectancy estimates, women, 2010 Percentage of population that is obese, men, 2011 Percentage of population that is obese, women, 2011
Alameda 79.2 83.1 24.1% 30.6%
Contra Costa 79.0 82.9 31.8% 30.8%
Marin 81.4 85.0 22.9% 21.1%
Napa 78.1 82.5 31.5% 32.9%
San Francisco 78.8 84.4 18.3% 20.9%
San Mateo 80.3 84.3 22.8% 25.5%
Santa Clara 81 84.5 22.8% 28.0%
Solano 77.0 80.9 32.6% 37.0%
Sonoma 78.5 82.0 29.3% 30.5%

KQED radio’s Forum program will discuss this report Thursday at 10 a.m.

  • troofspeakah

    Mission hipsters and Castro methheads dragging down the avg male bodyweight, all them burly sistahs at the Veritable V shattering the stereotypes of a skinny female. Sounds about right.

  • JuniorWoodpecker

    So 18% is almost one in five men that are obese. It may be better than much of the rest of the country, but it’s certainly nothing to be proud of. From one point of view it’s an epidemic of obesity.

  • bt1980

    Neighbourhood walkability promotes leading an active lifestyle, without having to be a gym-going fitness nut. I read a CBC report about Toronto, Canada where studies observed 20% lower diabetes rates in the downtown core, versus the outer suburbs.

  • Tsuyoi Kuma

    Skinniest men is right – eat a steak hipster boy!

  • Schmerin

    I’m not surprised…with the cost of living so high, they can’t afford to buy food in SF!

  • SamOakland

    I got one thing to say: the gays. 🙂

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