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If you haven’t seen it already, I am sorry to be the one to bring this to your attention. The news agencies have begun to pick up on a “study” that shows that fat women exercise, on average, for one hour per year. Now naturally, I found this highly suspicious. Nearly every fat person I know exercises more than that. It seemed extremely unlikely to me, so I held my nose and started reading the articles and checking into the study.
Now the articles that are reporting about this study sport headlines like: “Obese Women Get One Hour Vigorous Activity Per Year”. (Warning, link leads to article with obligatory “headless fatty” picture.) But let’s look at a few things here. First of all–the study asked the participants to wear accelerometers for 10 hours per day for 4 days. Based on the findings from the accelerometers they extrapolated how much “vigorous activity” each participant got over the course of a year. There were not a lot of participants in the study, and the participants were not all fat. In fact, nobody in the study got very much exercise based on how they defined exercise. Even those in the thin categories only got about 10 hours of exercise per year–far, FAR below what is recommended for good health.
So what is going on here? Well the main thing that’s happening, is the the study makes the definition of “vigorous activity” extremely narrow and then reports how few people fit their definition of activity. The study uses accelerometers which are known to only measure a very specific type of physical activity. Typically accelerometers are good at recording lower body movements of a certain type (walking, running, climbing stairs) and not really good at recording many activities of daily livings (ADLs). Further more, it appears that the study uses a short period of time to calculate the activity. (4 days is considered the minimum by some standards and below the necessary threshold of measured time by others.)
The main issue here is that while the study’s definition of vigorous activity is really narrow, may of the headlines don’t reflect this. I’ve yet to see a single headline that says “Fat people spend nine hours less per year running and jumping rope than thin people.” But in essence, that’s what we’re talking about here. It just gives the fat people a lot more ammo to throw at people of size.
It also gives people of size more reason to believe that they are both inactive and unhealthy. And believing you are inactive and unhealthy can help make you inactive and unhealthy. A recent study involved two groups of hotel workers who had moderately active jobs. In the study, one group of workers were told that their daily work “counted” as exercise and the other group were told that their daily work “didn’t count” as exercise. Then they took a host of health metrics down the road.
According to the study:
Although actual behavior did not change, 4 weeks after the intervention,the informed group perceived themselves to be getting significantly more exercise than before. As a result, compared with the control group, they showed a decrease in weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, and body mass index.
In other words, if you believed the activity you are doing “counts” as exercise and will help make you healthy, it is more likely to do just that.
In this light, it is difficult to understand what good will come from narrowing people’s definition of what constitutes healthy activities. In my certification process, I was taught that there are three main categories of exercise–cardiovascular training (aerobic exercise), resistance training (strength training) and flexibility training (stretching). I was taught that all three of these are very important to health. But the “fat ladies get one hour of exercise study” only counts a small percentage of one of these categories as exercise. It doesn’t count resistance training or flexibility at all. It doesn’t count cardiovascular activity based in water or that primarily uses the upper body. It doesn’t count many forms of walking, cycling or jumping as vigorous activity despite failing to take body weight or heart rate into account.
In fact, of the 60 activities listed in the Fit Fatties Virtual Decathlon, less than ten of them would be likely to be accurately measured by an accelerometer. And it would be difficult to determine how many of those would be considered “vigorous” enough to count in this study.
But our bodies are smarter than this study. And our bodies love joyful, physical movements of all different types. We know that shame doesn’t work, and we know that believing you are engaged in healthy behavior makes it more likely that you will receive benefits from that healthy behavior. With that in mind, it seems like we should be actively working to expand the definition of what “counts” as exercise and providing as many examples of people of all ages, shapes, sizes and abilities, who are smiling and doing this stuff as is possible.
With that in mind we are going to be inviting you to tweet some of your absolutely gorgeous pictures of healthy, happy, and fabulous activities in an upcoming project. Stay tuned for the details. In the meantime, keep having fun and keep moving your glorious bodies in lots of different and happy ways. It all counts.
Jeanette (AKA The Fat Chick)
P.S. Want to make sure you are the first to know about fabulous fit fatty projects and get some free stuff? Don’t forget to join my group!