We also turned up an interesting correlation between religiosity, or rather the lack thereof, and physical fitness: States with higher numbers of non-religious people had higher rates of exercise. As the Public Religion Research Institute has reported, cities tend to be "hubs" for the religiously unaffiliated, and they're often full of the types of high-paying jobs that the CDC links to higher rates of exercise. There may also be a simple mechanism at work by which people who don't go to church have more time to exercise on the weekends.
Conversely, fitness is negatively associated with the share of people in a state who voted for President Donald Trump in 2016. This is where we need to point out, emphatically, that simple correlations like these don't tell us much about causation. It seems highly unlikely that pulling the lever for Trump would somehow make a person decide to hang up her running shoes. More likely, Trump support is related to a whole host of other structural factors, like income and demographics, that also relate to rates of fitness.
It remains interesting, however, that Trump support is about as good of a predictor of physical fitness as the percent of a state's residents in poor or fair health. Economic factors may be lurking behind both indicators here.
Here's something of a puzzle: Rates of heavy drinking (eight or more drinks per week for women, or 15 or more for men, per the CDC) are correlated with greater levels of leisure time physical activity. This may seem counterintuitive, but again, research has indicated that higher-income individuals tend to drink more.
The physical environment, on the other hand, seems to play less of a role in exercise amounts than one might think. Warmer daily temperatures show a slight negative correlation with rates of exercise — the hotter it is, the less people work out. But the overall physical environment, as measured by the USDA's Natural Amenities scale, doesn't seem to play much of a role at all. This starts to make sense when you consider that many people get their exercise in indoor, climate-controlled gyms.
Let's wrap it all up with one final question: Should you even care about any of this? Here's the answer: Only if you enjoy being alive.
At the state level, higher rates of physical activity are correlated with longer lifespans. There's about five years of difference in average life expectancy between the least physically active state (Mississippi) and the most active (Colorado).
Moreover, this is one question where we can fairly safely say that correlation does equal causation, as evidenced by the reams upon reams upon reams of research showing the importance of physical activity for living a longer, healthier life.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Sun Herald