I originally posted this last spring, but since I’ve actually moved into the inner suburbs of D.C (City of Alexandria) now and I’m on a new (hopefully permanent) fitness kick (see here, here, and here) I thought it would be appropriate to repost with some revisions/updates.
The title of this blog is slightly misleading because there are, in fact, fat people in DC. I would know. As a roundish person in a sea of svelte, angular people, I can tell you there just aren’t too many of us out there, at least by national standards. The U.S is currently fatter than it’s ever been and it looks like we’ll only continue getting fatter, but if you happen to live in certain DC metro neighborhoods, you might be wondering where all the fat people are. And I’m not just making this up; the D.C fitness craze is a well-known phenomenon – D.C is the second fittest city in the nation, according to the American College of Sports Medicine’s American Fitness Index. According to WJLA (local DC news channel), “the ranking, which includes Alexandria and Arlington as factors, indicates that the D.C. area is abundant with parkland, recreation centers, dog parks and other fitness facilities. Rates of poor mental health, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other health indicators are also low.” Minneapolis-St.Paul beat us, if you’re wondering.
I’m sort-of newly single (not sure how much longer I can claim new singledom) size 12 (I’m taking some creative liberties here and flattering myself) 29-year-old and I’ve recently found myself wondering if I can compete against size 2 marathon runners in a city like DC. I did somehow manage to run a 5K (go me!) back in December but I’m far from a size 2 and it was not an enjoyable experience by any means. Sometimes I feel like I live in the wrong city; I’ve visited other places, like rural West Virginia, for example, and I felt great. I felt like hot stuff. Yes, I even felt thin compared to most people I saw, mostly because rural West Virginia, it turns out, is filled with inordinate amounts of impressively fat people. Sorry West Virginia…you have a beautiful state, you just happen to be the third fattest in the country after Mississippi and Alabama.
But really, the same goes for lots of places. Have you ever been to a Big Box store in the south or in a rural area? I don’t know about you, but I always feel pretty good after walking out of one of those (and also a little bit sad). But for better or worse, this is not the case in D.C, where people are constantly signing up for 10Ks, half marathons, full marathons, triathlons and accomplishing all kinds of impressive physical feats beyond zooming up and down aisles on motorized shopping carts (again, I apologize for possibly offensive generalizations; poor nutrition and obesity-related health issues in poverty-stricken areas really are a big deal). But back to D.C: In DC, people do yoga and Pilates on the regular. They play bocche, softball, kickball, ultimate frisbee and ride their bikes like it’s nobody’s business. They eat quinoa, organic free-range chicken and all kinds of healthy stuff. And if they drink beer, it’s craft beer. When I hang out with my fellow DCers they casually mention they “can’t drink too much” because they’re running 11 miles in the morning. Really? That would be the crowning achievement of my fitness life and they’re dropping it in like it’s no big thing!
Several months ago I was taking an after work walk on Four Mile Run and I decided to pay special attention to my fellow trail-users. I was surrounded by girls with chicken legs (said with no contempt — how I would love to have chicken legs), guys with six-packs and zero ounces of fat on their bodies, flat abs, flat butts — people who can wear shorts without fear of exposed muffintops, cellulite or cankles. There is nothing short of a large economic incentive that would get me to wear shorts in public, even in 100 degree, 100 percent humidity weather. People wear actual biking outfits as if they’re racing in the Tour de France and have all kinds of official looking backpacks, fanny packs, cellphone holders and headphones. Now that I live in the City of Alexandria, I’ve actually witnessed people jogging with camelbaks in sub freezing temperatures. That’s a level of dedication I can only dream of achieving. This is what we non-athletes are up against in this City. I often wonder, if this is what success looks like in DC, am I going to have to play this game if I want to be successful? Of course, it would help to stop wondering and take action…
I’ve spent a lot of time theorizing about what makes DC such a Mecca for the fit (again, lots of thinking but little action). Is it something about the city itself, or is it more about the kind of people who move here? Is it that the kind of people willing to pay $2,000 for a one-bedroom apartment are naturally the kind of people who happily go running along the Potomac in sub-zero temperatures, sign up for half a dozen races a year and spurn hot dogs in favor of tofu? I mean, D.C is a competitive place. In certain neighborhoods, everyone has a B.A, most people have a graduate degree, and “smart” and “ambitious” aren’t describers worth mentioning because, well, just about everyone is smart and ambitious. Are these kinds of people just more likely to put the same laser-light focus on their bodies as they do on their careers? Is exercise just a de-stressor for the perpetually stressed? Is this a class issue? Because, as non-politically correct as this may sound, fitness and thinness seem to be characteristics relatively unique to the upwardly mobile, at least in the U.S. How many obese CEOs, politicians (thanks a lot, Chris Christie, lone representative of fat politicians everywhere, for that whole bridgegate fiasco) or think-tank project managers can you think of? I think that at least on some levels, thinness is associated with discipline, intelligence wealth and, ultimately, success.
I have my theories about what makes D.C such a mecca for the fit and firm — namely that DC residents are generally younger and more career/power-driven than people in a lot of other cities. So I decided the best tactic would be to discuss the matter with a brilliant UVA-educated urban planning major, who currently took his skills and experience to Pittsburgh, where he’s living the millennial urban dream and working as a government intern. I asked him “why do you think D.C is so fit?” His response: “Young, upper-middle class college-educated elite — urban professionals — move to this area. Also, there is a great park system and good mass transit. The city is walkable with lots of public recreation space.” That sounded good, but I was hungry for more opinions. Naturally, I got on Gmail and Facebook to see what other people think.
My best friend (whose family is from Iowa) said she doubted my assertion but if she absolutely had to give an answer it was “maybe because they walk places.” Yes, this might be true, but people walk places in lots of cities and while this may explain the overall thinness of D.C, it doesn’t particularly explain the fitness craze (the marathons, triathlons, etc.). My sister, an Eastern Market resident (who I consider a moderate athlete by D.C standards; last year she only ran a half marathon, 10-miler and hiked the Utah National Parks), said: “I don’t know because I don’t think image is as important as it is in other cities.” And I think that’s true. D.C is not the kind of place where you see a lot of lipstick or bold eye makeup on a day-to-day basis, and most girls look like they purchase their entire wardrobes from Anne Taylor or J-Crew, so we’re not talking about a lot of booty-tight pants and low-cut shirts a la Miami or L.A. Subtle is the name of the game here. But I wanted more so I asked my sister to think a little harder. She said “I think there are probably a lot of driven people in the city who are just very disciplined in all facets of their lives.” I think this is true. People here are ambitious. Not really in a make money/get rich kind of way, but in a get power or make a lasting, significant difference kind of way, though there are certainly plenty of people who make a lot of money doing one of these two things. I guess if you are the kind of person who believes you can change the world, running a 10K really is no big thing.
I asked another friend, who owns/runs a social entrepreneurship company, builds boats for fun and did college sports, about the DC fitness phenomenon and she said “everyone who moves here is type A. [There aren’t any] laid back people here because of the cost and job market. People move here to work, not to be a beach bum or smoke some doobies. It’s like Iggy Azalea…no money, no family, 23 in the middle of DC, instead of 16 in the middle of Miami. You come here for your gov/nonprofit job= no money, you probably left your home in New England = no family, [you’re] newly graduated…now get this work. So you get into a routine, you spend all your extra money at the bar, then realize you don’t have any.. and then you realize running is cheap. Or if you come here with a good job you’re probably a hard worker and already established in your routine. And you’re probably cocky as shit (lawyer type) and want to look good.”
I appreciated my entrepreneur friend’s honesty and I posed the same question to my cousin, one of the fittest and most ambitious people I know (who used to live in Crystal City in Arlington and now lives in Mount Pleasant in DC), to test out the theory. This is how our conversation went:
Me: Why do you think people in D.C and Arlington are so fit?
Cousin: There are some fat people, especially in the poorer areas.
Cousin: Upscale people have the time to exercise and the money to eat well and the education to know that too many hamburgers will give you a heart attack.
Me: Any other thoughts?
Cousin: People are also vain and into physical appearances.
Me: What is your reason for saying that?
Cousin: Based on all the magazines selling images of “sexy” fit people and diets and fitness plans and my own experience..I like to look good and part of my motivation for working out is to keep [the] pudge off my belly, even if it is an endless and nearly impossible struggle. The other part is that it feels good to be fit, and exercise for me is addictive.”
Of all the things I have been addicted to…Diet Pepsi, Vietnamese summer rolls, Cadbury eggs, cookies and cream ice cream, Doritos, icing…why has exercise always eluded me? I mean, I’m working on it. I signed up for that New York City bike race and I’m doing this 90-day fitness challenge, but despite all my efforts and positive vibes, exercise is not something I’ve ever felt I couldn’t live without or loved. It’s like brushing my teeth, making the bed, cooking for one…something you have to/should do, but not exactly something I look forward to with overflowing joy. And my cousin is right, thinness is very much correlated with social class because wealthier, more educated people have the luxury of being able to afford healthy food. You won’t exactly be ordering off the dollar menu at Whole Foods.
During my informal survey, education and relative affluence seemed to be the biggest reasons people believe the D.C area is so fitness crazed. Another friend, a rare Arlington native who is in great shape, has a great job and is very driven, answered my question by saying “[the D.C Area is] highly educated and affluent which is correlated with high exercise levels and eating healthy (i.e. they can afford Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s).” When I asked her to expand she said, “Well if you are more educated you likely care more about your body and the food you put in it…it’s part of upper society ethos to be active and fit. Also, I think well-educated and affluent people understand the potential benefits. For instance, attractive and fit people are more likely to be in upper management positions and get promotions.” Another friend, one of those infuriatingly naturally thin, highly intelligent and disciplined types said,“people are educated and wealthy.” When I asked her what this means she said, “Many of them grow up in a culture that values fitness and athleticism and a certain ideal body type, and they have grown up on healthy foods as well, so they continue it into their adulthood. They also have enough extra income to buy gym memberships and nice bikes and rock-climbing gear, and they have leisure time to use it.” So there you have it. There’s a relatively high percentage of fit, thin people in D.C because 1.) People here generally have high levels of education and make enough money to afford healthy foods, 2.) The kind of people who move here are naturally driven, ambitious and disciplined in all facets of their lives, 2.) Lots of trails and outdoor recreation areas make for plenty of outdoor exercise/sport opportunities.
I have never been thin. I remember being at least 10 pounds heavier than all the other kids in Mrs. Monks’ kindergarten class. While I was tipping the scale at 55 pounds, the vast majority of my puny classmates were barely hitting 40. In my defense, I was a tall kindergartener — actually, I think I reached my height peak in kindergarten…I slowly but surely moved from the back to the front row of class pictures over time. Anyway, shortness aside, I have accepted that unless I take a break from life and dedicate myself completely to fitness, I will forever have cankles and I will never be able to use the words slender and legs in the same sentence. But I will keep on trying anyway.
There is one piece of good news. Despite the fact that I am frequently surrounded by girls who don’t have to lay down and suck in to zip up their jeans, a 2010 government study showed that Hispanics are the longest living ethnic group in the U.S, despite the fact that we are, plainly speaking, pretty fat as a group. So in all likelihood, I will make it to 83.1 years-old despite the cankles.