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To Stay Thin, Eat Like the Cultural Elite

• May 14, 2012 • 5:00 AM

(Olly/Shutterstock)

New research finds an association between lower body weight and participation in cultural and intellectual activities, including reading.

You don’t burn many calories flipping pages in a novel, or walking to your seat in the opera house. But new research reveals an intriguing association between weight control and enjoyment of culturally enriching but sedentary activities.

That’s the conclusion I reach in a paper published in the Sociology of Health and Illness. The results show how specific sedentary activities reflect one’s lifestyle, and tell us something about the social sources of health.

The study uses survey data from 17 nations, most of which are in Europe. In each country, a representative sample of the population was asked not only about height and weight, but also about time spent in a variety of activities. These included reading, going to cultural events, socializing with family and friends, attending sporting events, watching TV, going shopping, and exercising.

A scale that measures interest in ideas, art, and knowledge—by surveying the amount of time spent reading, attending cultural events, going to movies, and using the Internet—is associated as strongly as exercise with a lower body-mass index, or BMI (a measure of weight relative to height). In other words, reading and exercise appear similarly beneficial in terms of BMI.

In contrast, people participating in other activities such as watching TV, socializing, playing cards, attending sporting events, and shopping have higher average BMI. Although time spent reading and time spent watching TV both expend few calories, one is associated with lower weight, and the other with higher weight.

This connection is not universal. It showed most clearly in nations of Western Europe and Oceania (Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand and Switzerland), but was less strong in nations of Eastern Europe (Bulgaria, Poland, Russia and the Slovak Republic) and other parts of the world (Dominican Republic, Israel, Mexico, Philippines, South Korea and Uruguay). It also showed more strongly for women than men.

Still, the evidence for the relationship is intriguing.

It’s not easy to stay thin these days. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 34.4 percent of Americans ages 20-79 were obese in 2007-2009. The problem has been getting worse in recent decades and, despite the huge popularity of numerous diets, Americans have trouble losing weight permanently. Culprits include lack of physical exercise and easy access to inexpensive, tempting, and calorie-dense foods in stores, shops, and restaurants.

So why might reading and related cultural activities be associated with thinness? The social meaning of the activity rather than the activity itself must be important for weight control. Leisure-time activities involve more than the calories burned; they also reflect differences across social groups in motives and means for good health.

More highly educated people tend to both read more and weigh less. Perhaps knowledge gained from schooling gives insight into the importance of proper weight for good health. In addition, mastering difficult coursework in college can help build confidence in one’s ability to reach difficult goals–including managing weight.

The data for 17 nations examined in the study did not allow for accurate measurement of family income. Yet, it’s reasonable to think higher income helps maintain body weight in several ways, such as allowing consumers to buy expensive fresh fruits, vegetables, and lean meats rather than cheaper starchy and fatty products.

That said, the association between BMI and reading and related activity can still be found even after controlling for education and other measures of socioeconomic status.

Perhaps the key is that groups sharing similar intellectual and cultural interests likely also share common lifestyles for health. It makes sense that members of a social network will share many ideals, and some of those ideals may relate to health and body weight. (See this article for another take on the importance of friends and families in fighting obesity.)

Among groups that most enjoy reading and cultural events, a healthy lifestyle and thinness may bring respect, while unhealthy behavior and being grossly overweight may bring criticism, even shame. If reading and related cultural interests lead to social networks of like-minded people, peer influence may help in maintaining or losing weight.

This does not mean a person looking to lose 10 pounds should join a book club rather than a health club. But this data suggests you have a better chance of keeping off excess pounds if you indulge in leisure-time interests that have intellectual or emotional weight.

Fred Pampel
Fred Pampel is professor of sociology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has published 12 books and dozens of research articles on topics relating to population, health and tobacco use.

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