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Charm City Named 'Fittest' City

Friday - 1/6/2006, 10:27am  ET

Associated Press Writer

BALTIMORE (AP) - Baltimore is the fittest city in America, according to one annual survey. To which many Charm City residents are responding: You gotta be kidding, hon.

Sure, Baltimore residents are known for eating lots of seafood, but are crab cakes and deep-fried lake trout the staples of a healthy diet?

"I think it's probably the most mis-fit city in America," said Charisse Bailey as she dug into a typical Baltimore lunch: fried red snapper on thick white bread, with a side of french fries and a beer.

The city's skyline is famous for neon signs advertising Domino sugar, Utz potato chips and National Bohemian beer. And while many Baltimore neighborhoods, such as Fells Point and Federal Hill, have been transformed by an influx of young professionals, a Friday night visit to either place reveals a culture that revolves around drinking and greasy food.

Nevertheless, Men's Fitness magazine placed Baltimore at the top of its annual list of cities where fitness is king, ahead of Honolulu (No. 2 for the second consecutive year), San Francisco (No. 7) and last year's winner, Seattle (No. 8).

The fattest city in America for 2006 is Chicago, taking over that dubious honor from Houston.

Last year, Baltimore was closer to Houston than it was to Honolulu, checking in as the 25th-fattest city in the Men's Fitness tally.

How could such a turnaround be possible in the space of one year? Men's Fitness editor Neal Boulton is quick to point out that the survey is far from scientific, and he says it took additional factors into account this year that worked in Baltimore's favor.

Among them: the amount of public park space, access to health care, air quality, the relatively small number of fast-food restaurants, and the leadership of Mayor Martin O'Malley. Boulton says Baltimore has become safer, more prosperous and more conducive to fitness.

"Baltimore is a paragon of urban renewal. That's why it's the fittest city, that's why it's the comeback city," Boulton said.

Boulton says he also reduced the importance of climate in the survey, which is one reason Baltimore managed to squeak ahead of Honolulu.

Rival magazine Men's Health had a different take on Baltimore. In its current issue, Men's Health ranks Baltimore 93rd on its list of the "100 Best Cities for Men," with grades of "F" in health and quality of life and "C+" in fitness. San Francisco tops the Men's Health survey, and perpetual bridesmaid Honolulu is No. 2.

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, Baltimore's health commissioner, said Thursday that the mayor sets a great example for Baltimore residents, and said the city has a strong school-based health and fitness program, which offer intervention for overweight students.

But Baltimore has not escaped the country's obesity epidemic, he said, and the racial disparity of diabetes is troubling. Black Baltimore residents have a 30 percent higher incidence of diabetes than whites, he said.

Baltimore residents seemingly would have had an easier time believing the Men's Health ranking. When told of the Men's Fitness honor, they invariably reacted with shock, bewilderment or outright laughter.

"Baltimore lives on junk food. That's why we're all standing here," said Mark Smith, an electrician with an ample midsection, surveying the scene at Lexington Market. The popular downtown lunch spot has dozens of kiosks selling fried chicken and cheap Chinese food.

"I've been eating here for 21 years," Smith said. "I walk around and think, 'What's the lesser of the evils?'"

And while the city has seen significant reductions in violent crime, large sections remain plagued by poverty and drugs, and residents of less prosperous neighborhoods often have to depend on convenience stores and takeout joints for sustenance.

"We don't eat well at all," said Tremonteria Morgan, a vegetarian. "We eat a lot of fried foods _ fried chicken and soul food. For myself, I have to search high and low for a health food place. We have a lot of obesity here in our city."

The mayor chose to look on the bright side, attributing Baltimore's increasing fitness to its economic revival and the end of its precipitous population drop.

"You see some neighborhoods starting to grow again, and attracting younger people. With those younger people coming, there's a number of gyms now," O'Malley said last week. "In every growing neighborhood, you look for two leading signs _ one is a gym and the other is a Starbucks."

The Rankings

(AP) - The fittest and fattest cities in America in the annual survey by Men's Fitness magazine, with cities in order of ranking, and 2005 rankings in parentheses. An asterisk () denotes that last year's ranking was on the opposite list:

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