How healthy is Pittsburgh?

Among American cities, we’re in the top 20. That’s the good news.

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recently released its 2014 Annual Fit City Index, a much-anticipated annual ranking of the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the United States. Pittsburgh’s score of 54.8 ranked it number 17, beating out New York City, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Cause for celebration? Yes and no.

Pittsburgh’s ranking is a result of many health-related assets. It’s a walkable and bike-friendly city with plenty of of farmers markets, parks, playgrounds and good recreational facilities. In fact, if we look at only these indicators, Pittsburgh would be a solid and impressive number four on the list.

But we scored 20% worse than the ACSM’s target goals for key health indicators, including the percentage of smokers and those with heart disease and diabetes. We also have a lower percentage of people eating 3+ vegetables a day.

Additionally, according to the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 65% of adults in Pittsburgh are either overweight or obese.

Sixty. Five.

Focusing on these indicators, Pittsburgh’s ranking sinks to number 40 out of 50. In the ACSM index, 8 of the 10 MSAs below Pittsburgh are Southern cities known to struggle with endemic chronic illness. With these MSA’s health statistics are equally chronic economic challenges and the some of the highest rates of poverty in the nation.

When it comes to the ranking of healthiest cities, Pittsburgh is more like some embattled Southern cities than livable city cohorts Portland, Seattle and Denver.

The question is: what is the city–and county–doing about it?

In April, soon after Mayor Bill Peduto’s 100th day in office, he announced the LiveWell Pittsburgh initiative , the first community to adopt the  county’s LiveWell Allegheny campaign launched in January. (Wikinsburg was the second.)

The programs include a “10,000 steps” and weight loss challenge, a discount to Venture Outdoors and education campaigns, among other things, according to Betty Cruz, who manages it in her position as the city’s Nonprofit and Faith-based Manager.

The first step is to ensure the success of CityFit, a wellness at work program geared to promote awareness of health, wellness and fitness for City employees.

During the LiveWell announcement, Peduto talked candidly about his own struggle with weight, sharing that he weighed his heaviest–240 lbs.–when he won the election. To date, he has dropped 20 lbs. and intends to keep on losing weight and “in the process become more healthy.”

To meet his fighting weight goal of 190 lbs, the mayor has joined the city’s 10,000 step challenge and pledged to start biking when the city hosted the Pro Walk/Pro Bike Summit this past month.

County efforts
The goal for the LiveWell Allegheny Campaign is to become the healthiest county in America, says Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department who spearheads the campaign. It will highlight the “need to increase physical activity, eat right, and be proactive in managing health,” she says. And a lot more.

“Live Well Allegheny also envisions offering screenings, alternative fitness activities, healthy cooking demonstrations, tips on stress management and more that are focused on residents of all ages,” she notes. “We are launched but constantly planning. We just hired Hannah Hardy as our Manager of Chronic Disease Prevention and she will help coordinate the LiveWell campaign. We are soon to launch our website and are working with other communities and schools as we speak.”

Just announced  is a series of meetings in various communities county-wide to better learn about health issues and the best ways to improve health for residents. ACHD will hold meetings in each of the 13 County Council districts to invite discussion and participation starting today, September 22, and continuing through the Fall.

“This is part of our larger community health assessment,” says Hacker. “We are engaging community in helping to identify and prioritize our key health issues. We are also providing data so that they can better understand the current state of health in Allegheny County. Once complete, the information  garnered from these meetings will help us prioritize and formulate our community health improvement plan.

When the county announced its initiative this past January, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald had lost 35 lbs. the previous year.

It seems just announcing health initiatives is motivation to shed weight.

If only it were that easy. The City’s efforts will encompass not only specific education campaigns but ensure that the LiveWell philosophy is incorporated in “everything we do, even in the way we plan our city.” (Hello, bike lanes!)

According to Betty Cruz, metrics to gauge progress will focus on many key indicators, including neighborhood safety, premature death, infant mortality rate, air and river quality and physical activity.

Other “critical priority areas” are obesity, heart disease, diabetes and smoking cessation. The City’s LiveWell program will begin “with an inventory of our own departments across the city and what we can do to improve these outcomes.”

She adds that she is looking to other successful LiveWell initiatives, such as San Diego (number 8 in the Fit City Index), to model specific programs. The San Diego program launched with about $17 million in federal funding.

Cruz shared that Pittsburgh was “recently selected by the National League of Cities for a $200,000 grant to enroll youth across our city in health care under our Healthy Together enrollment campaign–under LiveWell Pittsburgh.” Other funding is currently being pursued to target other LiveWell Pittsburgh goals.

Continuing to strengthen Pittsburgh’s health initiatives is key to our continued progress. Only one in ten cities include health as central to the planning process, and according to the Center for American Progress, this is critical to building a sustainable city.

It’s not solely a matter for the city and county, of course. Fortunately for Pittsburgh, a large number of organizations, from BikePgh to Venture Outdoors to the Jewish Healthcare Foundation and United Way are also working on many issues that will improve the overall health of our city and residents. However, there is an opportunity to increase efforts that focus on nutrition and food education. What these distributed efforts would benefit from is a unifying initiative that would magnify their impact. The city and county are beginning to take the reins with the LiveWell campaign and it can’t happen soon enough.

Leah Lizarondo

Leah Lizarondo is a food advocate, writer and speaker. She is also the co-founder of 412 Food Rescue, an organization that seeks to eliminate food waste to make an impact on hunger and the environment....