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Workout Warning: It’s Not Always Sunny in Philly

March 15, 2012 By:
Elyse Glickman
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Bridge over troubled water? Pollution and ozone problems can plague outdoor exercise.

As bikini season approach­es, temperatures rise and the desire to embrace the great outdoors beckons. So here’s some recent news that may have some fitness-minded Philadelphians running for cover: Enduring fitness magazine SELF released its annual “Best Cities for Women” this past December, and results revealed that the city ranked low in categories revolving around the environment.

Although Philadelphia is strong in history, tradition and a can-do attitude, it ranked toward the bottom of SELF’s 11th annual list of the Top 100 Health­iest Cities for women. Cities as geographically diverse as San Francisco, Honolulu, Boston, Minneapolis and Fargo, N.D., ranked in the top 10.
 
Though the survey is now a few months old, Anna Maltby, SELF magazine’s New York-based associate health editor, explains that the findings of the survey are particularly relevant since the arrival of spring and summer will mean some Phila­delphians will be anxious to take their workouts outside as winter subsides.
 
Though other lower-ranked cities may have a citizenry with wider waistlines and leaner motivation, Philadelphia held the low spot of 80 on SELF’s healthiness scale because it has the greatest number of toxic sites and most polluted water in the survey.
 
“We work with a wonderful statistician who has a proprietary formula for the process to evaluate the over 7,000 bits of data on health and fitness through­out the United States from BestPlaces.net,” explains Maltby. 
 
“The ranking came from the fact that Philadelphia has the largest number of EPA Superfund sites in the metro area, which affect both air and water quality and, in turn, bring about health concerns about exposure to various hazardous chemicals.”
 
The EPA defines a Superfund site as an uncontrolled or abandoned place where hazardous waste is located, possibly affecting local ecosystems or people. The 39 sites in the Philadelphia metropolitan area (not including the suburbs) can be found at: www.epa.gov/superfund/sites.
 
She goes on to detail that the primary culprits in Philadelphia’s Superfund site problem trace back to the city’s long-standing industrial and manufacturing might. Chemical processing, paint manufacture and steel production that play a role in the local economy also contribute to those unwelcome by-products.
 
Maltby goes on to note that while evaluating the cities in water cleanliness is a more complicated process for the survey’s statistician to evaluate, there is a definitive tie-in between the number of Superfund sites and water purity as the chemicals from those sites seep into local bodies of water, the air and the water supply.
 
Maltby encourages Philadelphians to move forward with their fitness plans, but with proper precautions.
 
Don’t let Philadelphia’s environmental “problems scare you off from getting a good workout,” Maltby says. “When you work out outdoors in the warmer months, you want to do what you have to in order to keep yourself safe. 
 
“Before you go outside, it is always a good idea to check the ozone levels with the many websites out there,” such as airnow.gov, that can help you track air quality. 
 
That’s not all: “It is also a good idea to not do your runs and power walks along busy boulevards or highways. You’re better off running on residential side streets or a local park with running or hiking trails.”
 
Maltby notes that air quality also tends to be worse in the mid- to late afternoon. When the sun is at its high point, the level of ozone in the air increases, and this is compounded with heavier rush hour traffic on the streets.
 
There are other things a citizen can do, she says. “The EPA Superfund website also lists many ways you can get involved to help clean up those sites, both in terms of taking action hands-on through various volunteer opportunities, as well as how-tos on writing to your local and community government representatives and offices in order to voice your concerns,” she says.
 
Maltby also suggests residents can research and join up with community and non-profit organizations, such as Clean Water Action, the Sierra Club and Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences, in their efforts to clean up the city. 
 
Good news: Philadelphia ranked well in terms of the number of physicians serving the general population. It also scored in the top 20 in terms of the number of health clubs and gyms.
 
“Philadelphia also scored very high with overall life satisfaction,” Maltby says. “Even with the uphill environmental battle, you Philadelphians are justifiably happy in this great city.” 

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