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Health Shocker

We're not fat and lazy after all

By Genevieve Roja

IN THE LAND OF cubicle Joes and caffeine junkies, there remains an alter-ego species, one that is part gym rat, part calorie counter, part yoga pretzel and part holistic expert. This assumption can be made after the market research firm MedStat recently ranked San Jose as the number one major metropolitan area in the country with the best overall health. San Jose outranked fellow Primary Metropolitan Statistical Areas, or PMSAs--the technical term the census drafted for areas with an average population of 367,559--Middlesex, N.J., Nassau, N.Y., Bridgeport, Conn., and Washington, D.C., respectively. Staggering, isn't it? After all, this is an area that feasts on the likes of Krispy Kreme, In-N-Out and Chili's without any hint of lard-induced remorse. Its citizens work obscene hours, commute half the day, coach Little League teams and try to exercise. Stress isn't just a health problem; it's a health lifestyle.

So what, exactly, helped earn San Jose and its neighboring cities in the county its rating? For starters, MedStat polled 100,000 Americans in a random sampling and asked, over the phone, 22 questions that spanned three categories: healthy behaviors, prevalence of diseases and self-perceived health status. Called the PULSE survey and conducted annually, it is the nation's largest telephone health care consumer survey. The ranking, based on the results of the survey, is also ranked by MSAs and not counties.

The survey, however, does not address many factors that arguably could skew the rankings. It does not consider external factors, such as environmental issues, nor does it ask Americans how much they eat out or details about their work habits. Each survey participant was not asked their weight or other personal information, although MedStat officials say the survey encompasses all ages. They are asked questions on how healthy they think they are, if they eat well, how many servings of fruits and vegetables are consumed in a day, how much time is devoted to exercise and how often they drink or smoke. The all-important question--stress--was asked, but the results were ultimately not significant enough to contribute to the overall health ranking. (MedStat, however, has used the information in a separate study.)

There's a handful of explanations behind the ranking. The San Jose PMSA had an overall health status of Very Good, just one below the highest Excellent rating. Counties with an Excellent or Very Good posted an average household income of $55,632, compared to the national average of $39,891. In addition, the same bracket completed more years of education--13.9--compared to 12 for those who resided in counties with poorer health. Those with a higher health rating also had more physicians to choose from in their areas. Santa Clara County, for example, has 1,150 physicians' offices to serve 1.6 million, equaling one physician's office for 1,409 people. The county's overall age could have also affected the high ranking, says chief methodologist and MedStat vice president Bill Patterson.

"San Jose has a younger age structure than, say, Washington, D.C., for example," he says.

Santa Clara County Medical Association CEO Bill Parrish has his own theories, one being that California might be leading the rest of the country in fitness and dieting crazes. He, too, agrees that the county is full of young people who are in relative good health. One need only reflect on the vast number of companies that offered employees healthy respites by providing on-site gyms, recreation rooms for pinball or foosball or maybe Nerf basketball, or added amenities such as massages and executive chef-guided cafeterias.

"There's that vision in some people's minds that we're the younger yuppies, the electronics guy who rides his bike to work," Parrish says of the region. "They won't be running laps at the paper mills in Pittsburgh."

Carolyn Felker, manager of the San Jose Swim and Racquet Club since 1981, can attest to the healthy changes she's seen in her members.

"Here at the club, people drink less, don't smoke, and exercise quite a bit more compared to 20 years ago, when they were partying hardy," she says.

When asked to rate her own overall health on a scale from one to 10, she draws a deep sigh.

"Unfortunately, I would only put myself at about a six," says Felker, 50. "I'm trying to help too many people reach their [overall health]."

So what's the verdict? Are we as healthy as they say we are?

"I wouldn't begin to know how to touch that," Parrish says.

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From the May 17-23, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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