Springs isn’t as fit as it’s billed

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Colorado Springs has been ranked by Men’s Health magazine and Gallup as one of the fittest, healthiest cities in the country.

The problem? The statistics don’t always support the hype.

A Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report ranks El Paso County nowhere near the top of the state’s healthiest regions. Instead, it’s ranked 29th out of 56 counties for overall health outcomes and 33rd for health factors such as number of children in poverty. The county is ranked 36th for health behaviors such as smoking and 48th for its physical health environment, which covers topics such as air quality.

So how can economic developers promote a healthy lifestyle as the No. 1 reason to locate a company here?

Mike Kazmierski, head of the Regional Economic Development Corp., said his organization markets the city “based on fitness, not necessarily on health.”

“We have almost 50 national sports headquarters,” he said. “For a community our size that is extraordinary and is an indication of the natural attraction we have to organizations that value sports and fitness.”

The United States Olympic Committee also is here, and the area is a major hub for amateur sports.

Operation 6035, another economic development organization, names the health and fitness area as one of five sectors that economic developers should focus on.

Kazmierski already is.

“We have created an industry team comprised of executives in the sports, health and wellness community,” he said. “We are targeting national sports organizations, sporting goods manufacturers, medical device manufacturers and e-health related companies.”

The EDC also attends trade shows to build relationships in the health and wellness sector and is creating marketing material directed at companies in that space.

But elite athletes do not a county make.

The county’s smoking rates are higher than the state average, and so are its premature death rates, according to the Johnson Foundation study, which was conducted in February along with the University of Wisconsin.

The study said people here take more sick days. There are fewer primary-care doctors, and the Springs sees more air pollution than the rest of the state. Also, only 27 percent of the population has access to healthy food, compared to 37 percent in the rest of the state.

Colorado still remains “one of the healthiest states in the nation,” Kazmierski said.

“Colorado Springs is a city that has such a large and diverse population, so rather than comparing us to much smaller communities, a more appropriate comparison would be to see how Colorado Springs compares to other similarly sized cities across the United States.”

Kazmierski, expressing his skepticism, pointed out that Denver County — “a nationally recognized city for health and fitness,” — is ranked 47th for outcomes and 50th for behaviors in the study.

Denver, however, doesn’t promote itself as a wellness or sports center.

The top five Colorado counties in overall healthy outcomes are Douglas, Eagle, Boulder, Pitkin and Broomfield. For behavior, the top five are Pitkin, Douglas, Routt, Boulder and Summit.

The report ranked counties across the nation on key factors that affect health such as smoking, obesity, binge-drinking, access to primary care providers, rates of high school graduation, rates of violent crime, air-pollution levels, liquor store density, unemployment rates and number of children living in poverty.

Mike Moran of the Colorado Springs Sports Corp. also had his doubts about the study, saying it doesn’t match up with what other surveys say about the area.

The area might not have the reputation for runners like Boulder does, but it is an extremely friendly city for spectator sports, Moran said.

“We have people participating from 4 years old to 85 years old,” he said, referring to the Rocky Mountain State Games, held annually in Colorado Springs. “And participation isn’t down — people like having a low-key, friendly place to compete.”

Dr. Bernadette Albanese, medical director for the El Paso County Department of Health and Environment, said the county would be conducting its own health survey during the next 18 months. She said doing so would give it a more accurate picture of the community’s health.

“We’re not only going to talk about the statistics,” she said. “We’re going to find out why the numbers are what they are. We’re going to look at underlying causes. That way, you have more than just numbers.”

The department is receiving state money to perform its survey, which is in its early stages.

The report it issues will be similar to its 2006 study about life, death and disease in El Paso County, though Albanese said it will be more comprehensive.

“When we’re finished, we’ll know what problems we need to focus on,” she said. “We’ll be able to project our goals for the next three to five years.”