Mountain states like Colorado and Utah tend to attract health-conscious people and inspire active lifestyles. But some studies suggest that just living at high altitudes improves cardiovascular health, thanks to the lower oxygen level of the “thinner” air.
Researchers have also linked living at high elevations to lower body weight. In 2013, for instance, a study in the International Journal of Obesity found that Americans living in counties above 5,000 feet are less likely to be obese than those living below 1,600 feet, after adjusting for age, physical activity, diet, smoking, race, air temperature, and demographic factors. The higher the altitude, the lower the obesity rate. Similar results have been seen in some studies from Nepal, India, and Argentina, the researchers noted.
Despite the adjustments for various obesity-related factors, correlations based on such observational research don’t prove that high altitude improves weight control.
But a study published in April 2014 in the online journal PLOS ONE strengthens the case by looking at the effects over time. The study looked at the records of 9,800 Army and Air Force personnel (overwhelmingly men, all overweight but not obese) and tracked what happened to their weight over six years when they were assigned to bases at various altitudes. Those stationed at high altitudes (above 6,400 feet, such as Colorado Springs and Cheyenne, Wyoming) were 40 percent less likely to become obese than those at lower altitudes (below 3,200 feet). The study controlled for initial weight, race, age, and certain other factors.
Why would differences in elevation influence body weight? The researchers offered some biologically plausible explanations, based on animal and human research. Short-term studies show that people put in low-oxygen environments, as in high-altitude travel, tend to have reduced appetite, in part because higher altitudes may affect hormones such as leptin. They may also lose weight because of the increased metabolic demands (and thus more calorie burning) of high-altitude exertion.
Even if future research confirms these findings, mass relocation to high altitudes is obviously not a practical solution to the obesity epidemic. Moreover, high altitude is associated with certain health risks, notably for people with respiratory problems, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). For other people living at high elevations, however, the potential health benefits may make the view from up there look even better.