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HEALTH & FITNESS : HAIL THE HALE : Poll Shows County Population Is Unusually Focused on Health

June 22, 1989|DANA PARSONS | Times Staff Writer

Orange County residents are surprisingly focused on health and fitness, with nearly three of every four saying they are more concerned about diet and nutrition today than they were five years ago. A whopping 86% said they pay either a lot or some attention to diet and nutrition, and 72% said they pay either a lot or some attention to exercise and fitness, according to The Times Orange County Poll.

A mere one in 10 residents polled said they favor red meat as "very much" a part of their diet. Four in 10 said they eat no sweets. And cigarette smokers are a dwindling minority: Just 17%--in contrast with 27% nationally--admitted to lighting up.

Given Southern California's reputation as a trend-setter, the county might be ahead of the nation in its increasing focus on health and fitness, pollster Mark Baldassare said.

In fact, he said, interest in fitness has "practically become a county obsession."

That interest cuts across all age and income categories and affects men and women equally, the figures showed.

A national study by the Centers for Disease Control in 1987 found that just 45% of Americans get enough exercise to do them any good. In contrast, nearly 75% of respondents to The Times Orange County Poll said they exercise at least several times a week, including 21% who said they adhere to a daily routine.

Residents said they have taken seriously the concept of eating well and exercising, said Baldassare, whose firm, Mark Baldassare & Associates of Irvine, conducted the poll for The Times Orange County.

Eating healthy is a "definite trend" in the county, he said: "We were always told that a good, wholesome diet was white bread, bologna and whole milk--with some chocolate cookies for dessert," but the poll indicates that has changed.

He attributed the results to "the increasing public awareness that fitness and diet are central to living longer. It's a scientific discovery that's become very accessible to the public at large. The secret to the fountain of youth is out, and it's diet and exercise."

The poll indicated that adherence to more healthful habits may be paying off, with 89% rating their health as either excellent or good. Men rate their health slightly higher than do women.

The most popular exercises, according to the survey, are calisthenics (65% of the exercisers do them), bicycling (49%) and weights (46%). In addition to calisthenics, men tend to favor weights and bicycling, while women prefer aerobics and walking.

When not working out, county residents said they turn to other outlets for exercise. Swimming was rated as the most popular outdoor activity, followed by bicycling and hiking.

Other findings:

* Of residents polled, 26% said they have quit smoking, and 57% said they have never smoked. Smoking is least popular among the young. Among ages 18-34, 69% say they have never smoked, and another 15% have quit. Older people are the most successful quitters, with 41% of those 55 and older saying they have stopped smoking--the single largest age group to have kicked the habit.

* Nearly 70% said fresh produce is "very much" a part of their regular diet. Fish, chicken and whole grains also scored high. Fish or chicken are very much a part of their diet, 61% said, while 48% put whole grains in that category. Just 5% rated sweets as a big part of their diet. When it comes to diet and nutrition, women and older people tended to be more concerned.

* While people are changing eating habits, they cannot kick caffeine. More than half said caffeine is still "very much" or "somewhat" a part of their regular diet.

* Curiously, vitamins were rated by many as unimportant. Vitamins are "very much" a part of their regular diet, 34% said, but another one-third said they do not take them at all.

* Most residents said they no longer worship at one of Southern California's most famous shrines: the sun. Merely about one in four said they are interested in getting a suntan, apparently a response to heightened publicity about the links between the sun's rays and skin cancer. Concern about the sun's harmful rays is more pronounced among women than men. About half the women said they avoid the sun; just 28% of the men said they avoid it.

Several factors may explain the county's high perceptions of health and fitness consciousness, Baldassare said. Its high level of affluence and education probably contributes to more awareness, he said. The "California life style," with year-round good weather, also provides opportunities for outdoor activities.

In addition, the county has an abundance of parks and other public outdoor space for exercising, he said. And in a more suburban environment, people do not have the fear of crime that urban dwellers face, so they do not hesitate to jog at night or visit parks.

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