New Jersey is getting healthier, less obese and less diabetic, even though its residents are smoking more and becoming less active.

The state’s position in the United Health Foundation’s annual rankings increased from 17th healthiest in the nation in 2011 to eighth in 2012, in part due to low levels of obesity and smoking compared to the nation at large.

“We’re all thrilled and happy that New Jersey is in the top 10 when it comes to health,” said Arturo Brito, the state deputy commissioner of health. “It’s really a tribute to the work we do collaboratively with our sister state agencies, community partners and local health departments.”

The percentage of adult New Jerseyans considered obese — those with a body mass index of 30 or higher — has started to drop from its peak last year, when it included almost exactly one-quarter of the adult population, to just less than 24 percent in 2012. That number, however, is low enough compared to other states that New Jersey ranks fourth overall, behind only Colorado, Massachusetts and California.

In addition, the percentage of New Jersey adults with diabetes, at just under 9 percent, has also dipped slightly from its highest levels in 2011.

Another factor playing into New Jersey’s healthy rankings is its low smoking rate, coming in at third in the nation at just less than 17 percent of adults, behind only California and Utah.

That number has gone up by a significant margin, however, increasing from an historic low of just above 14 percent in 2011. It also means that more than 1 million adults in the state still smoke. A recent study from the American Cancer Society found a large disparity between lung cancer rates in North and South Jersey.

Among the health challenges facing the state, the foundation stated, was a “higher prevalence of sedentary lifestyle than most other states.”

New Jersey ranks 30th overall when it comes to the percentage of adults “who report doing no physical activity or exercise (such as running, calisthenics, golf, gardening or walking) other than their regular job in the last 30 days.”

In 2012, more than 26 percent of New Jersey adults reported a sedentary lifestyle, though to be fair, that number is barely two-tenths of a percentage point above neighboring states such as New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, all of which were above 26 percent, and below Delaware at 27 percent.

The foundation also cited such health disparities as the fact that a sedentary lifestyle is more prevalent among Hispanics (37 percent) than non-Hispanic whites (23 percent). Obesity is more prevalent among non-Hispanic blacks (36 percent) than Hispanics at 28 percent and non-Hispanic whites at 23 percent.

The state also ranked 25th when it came to binge drinking — the percentage of the population over age 18 who drank “excessively” in the last 30 days. “Excessive” is defined as men having five or more drinks and women having four or more drinks on one occasion.

More than 18 percent of adult New Jerseyans met that standard in 2012.

Steve Blumberg, senior vice president at AtlantiCare Health Solutions, said many people with health issues have more than one that they’re dealing with at the same time.

“They may not have insurance. They may have an unhealthy lifestyle. They have any number of unhealthy conditions as well,” Blumberg said. “That’s why people need a primary-care physician they can count on and rely on to help manage care.”

Among other health challenges listed by United Health Foundation — coming just a few days after Gov. Chris Christie’s veto of setting up health-care exchanges under the Affordable Care Act — was the high rate of the uninsured population. Almost 16 percent of the state population does not have access to insurance, which ranks 33rd overall.

The foundation also cited the high rate of preventable hospitalizations in the state, in which it ranks 33rd overall.

Preventable hospitalizations is a measure of the discharge rate of Medicare enrollees with conditions that should not have required hospitalization if they had received proper primary care.

While high, those numbers have declined from 84 to 69 discharges per 1,000 Medicare enrollees over the past five years.

“New Jersey has one of the highest Medicare spending rates in the country,” Blumberg said. “And a lot is centered around venue, getting people to the right venues.”

For its part, AtlantiCare has implemented programs such as Mission Health Care, which helps homeless people manage care, and created venues such as the Heart Failure Resource Center to help people manage their conditions.

“The least expensive admission is one that’s never needed,” Blumberg said. “It’s a little cliche, but if you keep people healthy, it reduces the need for intensive care.”

The state ranks low on public-health funding for preventive and education programs: 32nd, with spending declined from $69 to $65 per person in the last year. High levels of spending on public-health programs, the foundation said, “represents only a small fraction of all health-care spending, yet its impact can be tremendous.”

Other challenges: a rise in the percentage of children in poverty from 13 percent in 2011 to more than 17 percent. In 2002, it was just over 9 percent.

“It’s great we’re in the top 10, but we want to keep moving up in the rankings and even within the rankings,” Brito said. “Effective (measures) we put in today may not see benefits until a few years from now, or a few decades from now.”

Contact Steven Lemongello:

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