Forty-one years ago the residents of Boulder undertook a bold experiment: they approved a referendum that raised the sales tax, to buy and manage parkland in and around the city. Since then, they have voted three more times to tax themselves for open-space protection. The result: 130 miles and 45,000 acres of open space and pristine wilderness at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains—boosting tourism and attracting an influx of environment- and health-conscious residents.
It has also helped transform this city of 91,481 into one of the nation’s healthiest, with extremely low rates of smoking and obesity—it is the skinniest city we surveyed, with a BMI of 24.94—and high rates of healthy eating and regular exercise. In fact, the city has been called the Gore-Tex vortex because it has seen so many affluent transplants who are relentlessly dedicated to self-improvement.
- Population: 91,481
- Median housing price: $660,600
- Average number of sunny days: 245 per year
- Healthy bragging rights: This city is so fit, one of its main problems is managing biker-and-runner sprawl. The most recent BolderBoulder race had more than 54,000 participants, prompting a discussion of a possible cap on the number allowed to run
Charlottesville regularly makes it onto best-places lists for its scenery, culture, and history. Thomas Jefferson’s father was one of its founders; James Madison and James Monroe lived here, too. But what really sets the place apart is its strong focus on medicine. It ranks fourth among U.S. metropolitan areas in the number of physicians per capita, and it also makes the top ten for family-practice doctors, oncologists, and cardiologists. The most obvious reason is the University of Virginia’s medical school and 572-bed teaching hospital.
Of course, good medicine is critical when you’re sick. But Charlottesville also has a strong tradition of helping its residents stay healthy. When Susan Seidler, now 59, learned that her bones were losing density, she went to a midlife counselor, two nutritionists, and an exercise physiologist who helped her design a diet and exercise program to ward off osteoporosis.
Luckily for Seidler, it’s easy to get lots of exercise in Charlottesville. The city is in a natural bowl between the Blue Ridge and Southwest mountains. The Rivanna River runs around the city, and a network of trails parallels the river and climbs the hills.
- Population: 40,315
- Median housing price: $382,800
- Average number of sunny days: 219 per year
- Healthy bragging rights: Residents are not just the healthiest eaters on our list, they are also among the happiest, and most likely to say they are satisfied with their lives
Last year the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality ranked Minnesota first in the nation for the overall quality of its health care. Minnesota is also the top-ranked state for residents covered by health insurance, at 91.5 percent. And despite its frequently inclement weather, the Minneapolis metro area ranks among the top ten in the country for share of residents who exercise regularly.
But those are just the numbers. Ask any Minnesotan why the Twin Cities area is a great place to live and you’ll get a litany of reasons, from its forward-thinking policies (the state was the first to designate smoke-free areas in restaurants, in 1975) to its many cultural offerings (which include the new Guthrie Theater on the Minneapolis waterfront) to its sense of community (four in ten residents do some kind of volunteer work, the highest rate in the nation).
“There is a can-do spirit here,” says Charlie Boone, 80, who has a weekly radio show at WCCO-Minneapolis. “It’s easy to stay healthy because it’s easy to stay connected.”
- Population: 3,175,041
- Median housing price: $308,000
- Average number of sunny days: 200 per year
- Healthy bragging rights: With 90 percent of households recycling, more than 80 green rooftops, and a nearly complete wireless network that extends city services everywhere, Minneapolis is redefining healthy livability
San Francisco Bay Area
Spanning more than 100 miles, from the vineyards of Napa Valley to the Silicon Valley, the San Francisco Bay Area is famous for its natural beauty and free spirits. But it’s also a great place to be healthy after 50. Its residents are among the least likely in the country to be overweight. Plus, they are among the least likely to smoke.
One visit to the Bay Area and you can quickly see why the region fosters health and vitality. Densely populated, with lots of neighborhoods where residents can easily get around via foot, bicycle, or public transportation, the region also has a long history of people banding together to improve services. Then there are the region’s world-famous medical centers, including those of Stanford and the University of California, San Francisco. And last year the city of San Francisco launched Healthy San Francisco, an initiative that offers free or subsidized health care to uninsured residents.
- Population: 4,180,027
- Median housing price: $825,500
- Average number of sunny days: 263 per year
- Healthy bragging rights: San Francisco’s pedestrians are treated to urban forestry, greenways, and plenty of public toilets, and the city is fierce in its environmental commitment. It was first to ban plastic bags, and it is now restricting plastic water bottles.
Naples-Marco Island, Florida
Despite the area’s long building boom, Naples still deserves its real-estate nickname: Florida’s last paradise. At least 80 percent of Collier County’s land has been set aside as open space, protecting places such as Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park; biologists believe the Everglades is the only place in the world where crocodiles and alligators cohabitate.
The area has hung on to its small-town feel: its beaches and art scene (more than 134 galleries in the vicinity) are often voted tops in the nation. And for links lovers, it’s heaven: Naples–Marco Island has the second most golf holes per capita in the country. In our survey, residents got high scores for regular exercise, healthy eating, and not smoking, so it’s no surprise that the area also has one of the lowest cancer mortality rates going.
The downside is high housing prices and a high cost of living. Naples has been hit hard by the foreclosure crisis—but that means you might be able to find some bargains here.
- Population: 314,649
- Median housing price: $637,100
- Average number of sunny days: 264 per year
- Healthy bragging rights: Long walks on the beach pay off, as residents of this sunny spot score second highest on our longevity scale.
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