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The Shape of Southland Fitness

Times Poll: We're living up to our reputation as health buffs. In general, many of us are not on diets, and we check food labels and exercise regularly. It's 'part of our culture.'


With the new year, most Americans have resolved to start taking better care of themselves by improving their diets and embarking on exercise programs. But Southern Californians are already well ahead of their countrymen in mind and body, according to a major public opinion survey conducted by the Los Angeles Times.

Living up to their reputation as fitness enthusiasts, a majority appear to make health and exercise top priorities. More than half (56%) said they exercise regularly, 62% take vitamins or nutritional supplements and 86% eat vegetables very often or fairly often, according to the survey.

"Southern California tends to be ahead of the rest of the country in healthy lifestyle changes," said Carol Kaprowski of USC's Department of Preventive Medicine. "It's just part of the culture."

The poll, conducted Oct. 25-28, surveyed 1,218 Southern California adults by telephone and focused on fitness habits and attitudes and opinions about health. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points. The poll results regarding attitudes toward aging, disease and dying appeared in last week's Health section. The Times Poll is available on the World Wide Web at

"The survey results show that, just months before the new year, Southern Californians are satisfied with the way they look and are not dieting. Instead, they are exercising, watching their fat intake and trying to eat better," said Sharon Pinkerton, associate director of the Times Poll.

The poll results resemble a 1996 study by UCLA researchers who found that Northern and Southern Californians are in better shape and live longer than other Americans. Researchers attributed this finding to better diet, more exercise and a greater health-consciousness.

Other new poll highlights:

* 41% of respondents never weigh themselves, but 35% do so at least once a week.

* 43% believe their eating habits have improved over the last five years.

* 65% with some college education or more exercise regularly (compared to 48% among respondents with less education).

* 83% of men and 66% of women are very or fairly satisfied with the way they look.

Most Southern Californians are clearly concerned with what foods they put into their bodies, the poll showed. Nearly 80% of residents examine nutrition labels at least some of the time before making a purchase. And 26% said they always check food labels before buying.

Another encouraging poll result was the relatively low percentage of Southern California residents who said they were on diets (11%). Experts say national figures for dieting usually are well above 20%, and even reach 30% in a few states.

Nutritionists discourage dieting and dismiss it as a quick fix with little long-term health benefit. Instead they urge people concerned about their weight to implement lifestyle changes in food and exercise.

In spite of Southern California's shallow image as a body-obsessed culture, about three-fourths of residents said they were satisfied with the way they look. But, one-third also said they thought they were slightly overweight.

Women tended to be less content about their body image than men. While 40% of men said they were "very satisfied," just 25% of women gave the same response. And women were twice as likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies (34% to 16%).

While overall satisfaction rates about body image were roughly the same among the races, African Americans (46%) were most likely to be "very satisfied"; 36% of Latinos gave the same answer, while just 27% of whites did so.

But just because Southern Californians may know what's good for them, it doesn't mean they always eat it. The poll showed residents know how to indulge with the best of them.

When it came to naming comfort foods, they said ice cream (14%) took the cake. Eleven percent chose chocolate, while 9% said desserts in general.

Among the other comfort foods named were:

* fruit, 8%

* beef, 8%

* pasta, 7%

* seafood, 7%

* cakes and pies, 4%

* hamburgers, 4%

* cookies, 3%

* potatoes, 6%

* chips, 4%

* candy, 2%

Some notable differences emerged between ethnic groups, races and the sexes. Women were more likely to turn to chocolate than men (16% to 6%). But men were more likely to opt for beef (12% to 5%).

Whites (15%) were more likely to chomp down chocolate as comfort food than Latinos (6%) or African Americans (2%); 17% of African Americans chose seafood as their comfort food compared to 8% of Latinos and 6% of whites. (Asians were interviewed and are included as part of the overall results, but the sample was too small to be broken out separately.)

The one common unifying bond among men, women and all ethnic and racial groups was ice cream, named in similar proportions.

While Southern Californians may well be leading the way down the road to wellness, there's still room for improvement. For example, fewer residents are working out today compared to about a decade ago.

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