Menus Subscribe Search
Reading in fancy library

(Olly/Shutterstock)

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.

More From Fred Pampel

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 31 • 8:00 AM

Should Athletes Train Their Memories?

Sure, but it probably won’t help.


July 31 • 6:00 AM

Universal Basic Income: Something We Can All Agree on?

According to Almaz Zelleke, it’s not a crazy thought.


July 31 • 4:00 AM

Medical Dramas Produce Misinformed, Fatalistic Viewers

New research suggests TV doctor dramas leave viewers with skewed impressions of important health-related topics.


July 30 • 4:00 PM

Still the World’s Top Military Spender

Although declining in real terms, the United States’ military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.



July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.