Why we need to “broaden” the Definition of Exercise

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.

Love,

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!

 

 

 

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10 thoughts on “Why we need to “broaden” the Definition of Exercise

  1. Silver Sue

    I can’t even find a pedometer that will accurately measure my steps/distance! I’m told that it’s because it can’t measure if not in the correct position, and a fat lady’s waistband is not it. Also, they only measure accurately if the person is walking greater than 2-3 mph, something I rarely do because I have short, stubby legs as well as sciatica, degenerative disc disease and arthritis in my hips. Even Leslie Sansone says many of those gadgets don’t work accurately when doing her exercise routines, that they don’t pick up knee lifts, kicks and kick backs, and many other steps, and advises against wearing them.
    I know a few fat ladies who have tried the FitBit and other such devises and they all complain on how inaccurate they are, that one mile/2000 steps may read as low as a half mile and as high as almost 2, even after they accurately set them according to directions.
    Face-palm inducing “news” is right!

    Reply
  2. thecynicalpagan

    Sigh. Not to mention, four days? It completely depends on which four days you catch me on how much activity you see. Monday – Friday? I have a desk job and while I do try to walk briskly to and from the bus, and purposely take a bus that stops further from my house (it’s also WAY quicker), those days would miss the 3 mile walks I take on the weekends with my friend, and the hour of weights and yoga on Saturday or Sunday, the days I have time to work out, when I’m not dealing with 8-10 hours at work and an hour commute each way.

    Reply
  3. G

    Sigh. Yet another crappy “study” that will pass into apocryphal “everybody knows” territory after being widely circulated by the media.

    Reply
  4. Pingback: N Things Make a Post | Living ~400lbs

  5. k8heron

    I couldn’t bear to read the article but I really loved your response to it. Since adopting a broader view of “all movement/activity is worthwhile” (thanks Dr Rick) I find myself moving more than ever, and gradually increasing duration and frequency. When will mainstream media start reporting on changes to society/accessibility/physical city planning requirements of increasing everyone’s access to improve health outcomes instead of just reporting on what we’re not doing enough of (even if this is a false perception based on crappy science)? I want solution focused outcomes!

    Reply
  6. msgeekmedia

    I use an accelerometer…a Fitbit Flex. It’s a great tool to see what your “background” activity is, and how much you are walking, but not so good for measuring workouts with weights, on bikes, etc, etc. It’s just a tool in your toolchest, nothing more.

    Reply
    1. ksol

      So what happens if you try to use it on a bicycle, msgeek? I guess I am just really curious as to how much of the exercise I do wouldn’t even show up as exercise in this study. Does it work if you’re jogging slowly on a treadmill?

      Reply
  7. ksol

    I thought something smelled wrong about the headlines. How does an accelerometer work? Does it measure how much distance you cover or how vigorous movement is, or…. what? I’m not familiar with the things.

    And rest assured, if the news outlets had looked at the 10 hours thing for non-obese, the headlines would have screamed, “Normal weight people exercise 10 times as much as obese.”

    Reply
  8. mesacure

    That article hurt my brain to read. It made me feel like I should cancel the rest of my group fitness classes for the next twenty years because since I’m “obese” – work smarter, not harder, right?

    It is such a shame that these studies don’t really study anything. Focusing on the habits of a select few individuals and applying your theories to the larger population is super eye-rolling.

    I agree, there is so much more to living an active lifestyle than meets the eye. There is no shame in participating in life in any capacity your body and mind allow. I think that is the foundation of living an active and healthy lifestyle. For some it might be the group fitness class for an hour- for others it might be a walk around the block- and others looking after kids or pets. To generalize and say, “Obese women only exercise an hour per year,” is absolutely ridiculous, and face-palm inducing.

    Reply

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