Many of us think of exercise as a chore, even when the health benefits are indisputable. But new data from County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, which publishes an annual report on a wide range of local health factors, indicates that, for many Americans, the opportunity to get moving is not an obligation but a privilege.
At the national level, 22 percent of adults age 20 and over reported no physical activity during leisure time in 2015. Like most health measures, this varies significantly by region, getting as high as 40 percent in parts of the South. Far from being an indication of motivation, however, the researchers who compiled and analyzed the data say that socioeconomic indicators like income, education and public safety strongly influence rates of exercise. In short, those who are inactive are not lazy but, in many cases, burdened by factors that make activities like running, walking or playing sports a luxury that is unavailable.
The following map shows each county's level of physical inactivity. To explore this correlation between physical inactivity and household income, just manipulate the slider below the map to see the country divided into thirds by the lowest, middle and highest incomes. The effect is clear: The one third of counties with the highest incomes have a percentage of people reporting physical inactivity that drops to 20.1%.
Of course, no one factor can strongly predict whether a county has a higher or lower rate of physical inactivity. Keith Gennuso, the rankings' lead scientist, says a variety of social and economic factors correlate to levels of inactivity, including unemployment, post-secondary education and poverty--factors that are also statistically tied to measures like rates of smoking and insufficient sleep.
Marjory Givens, the group's deputy director of data and science, also notes that environmental factors can influence one's likelihood of staying active. The local crime rate has some bearing on leisure-time activity, she notes, presumably because a person is less likely to be out-and-about in a place where he or she does not feel safe.
As any health advocate will tell you, there is no one solution that addresses the entangled factors that determine a community's well-being. Givens points to a long list of recommended programs that data suggests can have a positive effect, many of which focus on encouraging physical activity. But it's not as simple as encouraging people get moving. It starts with promoting the opportunities and locations for that movement to take place.
Income and physical inactivity data courtesy of County Health Rankings. The average for each group was weighted by each county's population.