Slim in the City

The hottest restaurants, the best museums, the latest trends: City living puts the good life at your fingertips. But with those perks often come long commutes, even longer work hours, cramped living quarters, and hectic schedules, all of which can make it even more difficult to fit in healthy habits.

Research shows that city dwellers walk at least 15 minutes more than suburbanites, but that doesn't necessarily mean that urbanites are healthier. In its annual survey of the fittest and fattest cities in America, Men's Health magazine this year ranked the three largest cities—New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago—in the list of 25 fattest cities. And a 2006 survey found those who lived in Chicago had body mass indexes (BMIs) similar to those of people who lived in the Windy City's farthest suburbs, while the residents of nearby suburbs were slimmer.

Considering that about half of the world lives in a city these days, you can't use urban surroundings as an excuse for being unhealthy. Play up the pros of city life, watch out for the unhealthy dangers, and an urban environment can be just the ticket to a happier, healthier, lighter you.

Con: Trying to exercise in a small apartment is difficult.
Make it work: You can make your limited space work for you.
  • Love to run? Then head outside. Is Pilates your thing? Use a DVD and clear a spot on the floor. Into strength training? Fitness opportunities that require little to no space abound. Try: DVDs, dumbbells and resistance bands for strength training, mini trampolines for "rebounding" cardio. Get more small-space fitness ideas.
  • Think of the stairs in your apartment or your office as a built-in cardio machine. Climbing 5, 10, or even 20 flights of stairs seems daunting, but it's just like using a stair-climber at the gym. Have a competitive streak? Plenty of cities now offer "stair climb" races, so sign up for one and start training.
Pro: Cities are home to great food and restaurants.
Use it to Your Advantage: "Great" need not be synonymous with heavy, greasy, or fattening. Plenty of chefs experiment with light, flavorful, and healthful food.
  • Search out new "healthy" restaurants in your area. You'll find that these days, many restaurants think of light cooking as the rule, not the exception.
  • Cities tend to be melting pots, with plenty of cuisines that are good for you and delicious, including sushi (watch the sodium-laden soy sauce and ask for brown rice), Vietnamese (try a big bowl of pho, a noodle soup with plenty of vegetables), or Korean (but go easy on the greasy barbecued meats). Try out new ethnic cuisines (use our Dining Out Guide for tips) instead of going to your favorite burger joint or pizzeria.
Con: Street vendors peddle unhealthy eats.
Make it work: In many cities, hot dogs, oversized pretzels and pizza lurk around every corner.
  • Go for the lesser evil. If you must eat "street meat," choose a corn dog, which contains a modest 250 calories and 15 grams of fat (without any trimmings). The protein and fat will help keep you feeling full longer than a quick-digesting soft pretzel, for example.
  • Follow the Boy Scouts' advice: Be prepared. To ward off the temptation, carry granola bars, apples, bananas or other "portable" food. If you didn't plan ahead, stop at a corner store for fruit, a small bag of hard pretzels or a package of nuts. These also make good additions to otherwise unhealthy meals (like corn dogs), adding a little more nutrition and fiber to round out your meal.
Pro: City dwellers tend to walk 15-30 minutes more than non city dwellers do each day.
Use it to Your Advantage: Make the most of those minutes, especially if it's the only exercise you get each day.
  • Wear comfy shoes and stash the stilettos or wingtips during your commute so you can maintain a brisk, heart-pumping pace while decreasing your risk of injury or other discomforts.
  • Get off the train, bus or subway a few blocks early to add a few more blocks on to your total. Forgo taxis, and you'll save money in addition to doing your heart a favor. Even if you work in a high rise, you can still take some stairs. Get off the elevator a few floors early—better yet, take the stairs in the lobby to avoid the crowds at the elevator and hop on it a few floors up.
Con: The high cost of living in the city means you can't afford a gym membership.
Make it work: Almost everything costs more in the city: rent, food, entertainment, and parking. When you're barely getting by, a gym membership doesn't seem worth the price.
  • Look for gyms that offer special rates for new members, or check out the YWCA or YMCA in your neighborhood, which are often cheaper than big-name gyms. If you and your partner are going to sign up together, check on family discounts. Get more tips for joining a gym.
  • Forget the gym. Invest in a few pieces of fitness equipment that you can keep at home. Learn more about getting fit without going over budget.
Pro: There is plenty of green space.
Use it to Your Advantage: Even though cities can be concrete jungles, they often have some of the best parks and gardens available. Consider all that green space one giant—and free—gym.
  • Try biking, rollerblading, walking or jogging on the park trails. Find a peaceful (and level) spot and roll out your mat and practice your yoga poses.
  • Head to the playground. Do push-ups and triceps dips on a bench, then work on pull-ups and chin-ups on the monkey bars. A stretch of grass and a blanket is perfect for abs exercises.
Con: Supermarkets are few and far between.
Make it work: You don't need to have a giant big box grocery store in your neighborhood to eat healthfully. While you might have to be creative, you can find healthy foods close to home.
  • Stock up on bulk items and shelf-stable staples like whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, and canned and frozen goods at a larger store once a month or so. In between, shop at green grocers or farmers markets for seasonal produce, and other local fare. Not only will you get exercise by carrying your groceries home, but having to haul it will also cut down on impulse purchases.
  • Check out the city's unique gourmet markets, produce stands, and corner stores for a new food ideas. From dried goji berries to a new Middle Eastern spice, you can expand your palate one healthy food at a time.
Pro: Cities tend to be ahead of the curve when it comes to trends.
Use it to Your Advantage: Whatever the fitness trend du jour is—be it hot yoga, Power Plate, or hip hop aerobics—you'll be more likely to find a gym offering it in the city.
  • Shake up your fitness routine by trying out the latest classes. Look for promotions and offers to take a "first class" for free!
Con: The city never sleeps—and neither do you.
Make it work: In the city, noise from traffic, sirens, and late-night parties can disrupt your sleep, which can wreak havoc on your mind and body.
  • Try moving your bed away from windows (keep them closed), using earplugs, or drowning out the noises with your own relaxing "white noise" (such as a CD of rain sounds or a blowing fan).
  • Work out to sleep better. Regular exercise can help improve sleep and cut the time it takes for you to fall asleep.
Living in the city puts you in the center of activity, and with these tips you can make sure that you're getting enough exercise, eating right, and still enjoying the perks that make city living worth the drawbacks. Urban life takes a bit of adjustment, but with so much fun, cool stuff nearby, you'll soon be living the (healthy) life!
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Member Comments

thank you Report
Great blog, thanks for sharing. Report
I have often wanted to drown my troubles, but I can't get my wife to go swimming. ~Rodney Dangerfield Report
Good information. Report
good information. Report
Spent last week at my daughter's apt in NYC, watching her cats. I found that essentially every statement Stephanie made regarding large cities certainly is true. I went to a newly opened local grocery the first Saturday it was open. By far, the greatest number of customers were congregated in the produce and dairy aisle. There were 4-5 staff constantly resupplying shelves in both areas, sometimes a customer taking a package right out of the stock person's hand. As for exercise, the parks are packed, as are many of the less trafficed streets. Report
I moved from the heart of Seattle to a suburb of Sacramento. In Seattle I biked and walked everywhere. When I saw the walkability score of 39, I thought ridiculous, you can walk anywhere. Oh I was so very wrong. I finally gave up doing much. When you land in an area of strip malls and 6 lane split boulevards, you have no hope of not using a car. We moved, thankfully, into Sacramento. Although it is nothing like Seattle I feel as though I can function much like I did in Seattle. I bike into downtown and I walk a ton. I am finding my groove again, but certainly in my experience, the burbs and not at all health friendly and the city was much better. I also love not being surrounded by chain restaurants and box stores. I love a good coffee shop and they did not have any in the burbs, Starbucks does not count, btw. Report
I live on a the country of course. Downside is we lives several miles to the nearest city. Takes almost 30 minutes to get to work. I use videos, youtube, or the walk track my husband made for me out back. Report
I walk all the time. When I go on vacation I do alot of walking instead of driving. I love to walk. That's just me. Report
Working in Portland Oregon, I'm able to find "fast" food at the outdoor food carts that is quite often healthier than what I'd fix at home. We have 200 plus miles of trails, I wonder if I'll ever make it to them all! Report
I live in a NYC suburb and work in Manhattan and I feel like Manhattanites are slimmer than my suburban neighbors. I think the reason why NYC was ranked as a "fat" city is because it probably counted all 5 boroughs of NYC. The truth of the matter is that a lot of people who live in the outer boroughs (meaning not Manhattan) fall into the lower socioeconomic classes. Those who are poor tend to be more overweight. The people who live in Manhattan tend to fall into higher socioeconomic classes (hello? they can afford to live in Manhattan) and these are the people I see who tend to be slimmer. So the question isn't necessarily of city vs suburban living (although I think that in general suburban living does mean people sit on their behinds more and are therefore less active) but rather poor vs wealthy. Report
I think it's MUCH easier to get in a reasonable amount of walking if one lives in a city - at least, if you're in an area that allows you to walk to most/many of your destinations. It can be harder in smaller/mid-size cities where zoning restrictions may isolate housing from commercial spaces. I strongly believe that we need to re-think our views on zoning as well as prioritizing sidewalks in future roadway improvements. Report
I don't see it - I was just saying last weekend that everywhere I went in NYC there were healthy, slim people! I walked 15 miles in 2 days (tracked, not an estimate) and we didn't even do that much! Perhaps the unhealthy factors come more from things like pollution and stress? Report
I'm moving to the city (small city) in the next few months, from a relatively rural area of retired people. I can't wait for the opportunities that await.

Thanks for a great article.
I lived in wonderful CHICAGO where I did a lot of walking, but then when I lived in Los Angeles, I had to DRIVE everywhere. Report


About The Author

Stepfanie Romine
Stepfanie Romine
A former newspaper reporter, Stepfanie now writes about nutrition, health, fitness and cooking. She is a certified Ashtanga yoga teacher who enjoys running, international travel and all kinds of vegetables. See all of Stepfanie's articles.

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