How Hot Weather Makes Us Fat

If you live in a place with hot and humid summers where it also happens to rain a lot, here's some bad news: sucky weather correlates with less exercise and thus obesity.

Photograph courtesy of Getty Images.

If you live in a place with hot and humid summers where it also happens to rain a lot, here's some bad news: sucky weather correlates with less exercise and thus obesity. At least that's one conclusion from a recent study by researchers from the University of Texas published in the July issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

The findings go some way toward explaining why the Southern U.S. has the highest obesity rates and lowest levels of physical activity in the nation. According to the Healthways Well-Being Index (by polling group Gallup), seven of the top 10 most obese states are in the South.

Top of the list is Mississippi, where a whopping 35.4 percent of residents resemble Elvis in his final days. Average temperatures in Mississippi in July and August are 92 degrees, with stifling humidity—not much incentive to get out and burn calories in Mississippi's great outdoors.

By contrast, no Southern state appears in Gallup's list of the top ten least obese states. Gallup's research found Montana to be the least obese state in the union, closely followed by Colorado. Both mountainous states boast moderate summer temperatures very conducive to getting your ass out the door and in gear.

Lead researcher Paul von Hippel, assistant professor of public affairs at UT's LBJ School of Public Affairs, recognizes that factors beyond climate can have an impact on obesity—things like an area's demographics and the availability of parks, restaurants, and stores. But even when the study controlled for these factors, heat, humidity, and rain still had a significant impact.

Mountainous Terrain Alone Is Not the Answer . . .

Explaining further, von Hippel noted: "In a sense, the importance of weather is obvious, but we looked at some other 'obvious' things, and they didn't pan out. For example, going in we knew that Coloradans were exceptionally thin and active, so we expected to find that hills and mountains encourage physical activity. But it turns out that terrain matters very little for activity or obesity. In some mountainous areas, like Colorado, people are very active, but in others, such as West Virginia, they aren't."

So what can be done to help get people in climatologically challenged areas moving more and shaving off pounds? Good urban planning is key, says von Hippel, using an example from his own town of Austin. "Around June or July here, it starts getting hard to think about going outside for a jog—or even a brisk walk—after work, which is close to the hottest part of the day." But if planners make it easier for residents to stay cooler as they exercise, townsfolk will avail themselves of things like bike trails and walking paths. "A great example of thoughtful planning is the hike-and-bike trail along Lady Bird Lake in Austin, Texas," von Hippel says. "It's shady, it's next to water, and it attracts thousands of walkers, runners and bikers on the hottest summer days." By contrast, he says, bike lanes added to roads exposed to the scorching sun aren't likely to get much use.

Cold Cities Aren't the Answer Either . . .

Of course, if you think the solution to staving off weight gain is by swapping a hot place for somewhere cold, think again. Von Hippel's study also found a connection between high obesity rates and locations that are cold, cloudy, and dark in winter.

Seems there's only one safe thing to do: Colorado here we come!

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