Sociologists have shown that rates of “obesity” correlate with economic class. That is, the poorer you are the more likely it is that you will be overweight. This is, in part, because healthy, low-calorie food tends to be more expensive that calorie rich, nutrient poor food; and also because poor neighborhoods have fewer grocery stores, forcing the poor, especially if they don’t have cars, to shop for groceries at corner stores, gas stations, and fast food restaurants. When there are so many other things to worry about, like not going hungry, food quality is not prioritized. Level of fitness, then, correlates with social class (and the time and money it affords you) and the things that correlate with social class, like level of education.
The American College of Sports Medicine has released data showing these correlations, if measured at the level of U.S. metro areas, as reported at The Atlantic and sent along by Tracie Hitter, a doctoral student at New Mexico State University. First, fitness level is correlated with average income in these areas:
Second, fitness level correlates with average level of education (here called “human capital”):
And fitness level correlates with overall well-being, a measure related to both fitness and socioeconomic class:
Here are some selected metro areas plotted in relation to one another:Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Willow — June 10, 2011
How is "fitness" measured? Almost the entire first paragraph of the post is about weight. Fitness only becomes mentioned as part of a conclusion sentence. Logic does not work that way. Certainly good and sufficient nutrition might be considered part of fitness, but what else is there? (Otherwise the conclusion would just be "good nutrition correlates with class"). Access to high-quality sports facilities? The time to work out? Safe playgrounds? Medical care?
Anon — June 10, 2011
There seem to be a couple posts on here lately that fit pretty uncritically with the dominant anti-fat perspective - which is only made worse by comments. I wish SociImages would be more critical, careful, and thoughtful!
Elizabeth — June 10, 2011
If I remember correctly (don't have it here with me), there is a chapter in the Fat Studies Reader that explains how the relationship between body size and SES is not a simple unidirectional causal relationship. Large people are often kept from educational and career advancement through anti-fat bias. And as body size has a genetic component, this effect can compound over time in a family.
I'm glad to see that others have already addressed the weight vs fitness issue.
Zula — June 10, 2011
Fuck yeah, Minneapolis!
On a more serious note: I echo the concern that "weight" is not synonymous with "fitness." What exactly was the study measuring when it was measuring "fitness"? I wouldn't be surprised if it was more complex than just BMI.
Also, I'm not too well-trained in statistics, but am I interpreting the graphs correctly in that there's a slightly stronger correlation between education and fitness than income and fitness?
abitha — June 10, 2011
This might just be me, but to my eyes those graphs (especially the first two) didn't look like they showed a particularly strong correlation. Did the authors put a figure on how strong the correlation was for these data?
I also agree with those who have pointed out that correlation does not imply causation - it would be very easy to take these graphs and say either "being poor causes you to become unfit" (as Lisa seems to have done) or "being unfit causes you to become poor". But the graphs themselves don't show either of those things.
Forsythia — June 10, 2011
Fascinating how my home city (Portland) seems to be a near-outlier - I'd bet that has a lot to do with the way the city is constructed and has evolved (thanks to comprehensive statewide land use planning)as a place where walking and biking are viable modes for all social classes AND offset the cost of housing. Portland also makes sure transit is available everywhere, not just where rich people live (despite the usual howling about transit bringing gentrification, which doesn't seem to happen).
John Browne — June 10, 2011
Is it about poor people being heavier, then? Does "bike-friendly" communities work into this, somehow? That would probably be a boost to cities with a lot of college kids. It'd be interesting to see an "availability of produce/ full service groceries" graph thrown into the mix... &/or bicycle ownership (&/or just foot traffic). ^..^
Ariel Boone — June 10, 2011
My ish with this is, without adjusting income for cost of living, it probably exaggerates the strength of the relationship between fitness and income.
jamy — June 10, 2011
If you look at the study on which this is based, "fitness" is a combination of individual factors and community factors. "Obesity" was included as one of the "health behaviors," which is a little troubling but not a deal breaker. Since BMI only has value, though limited, at the population level, this is probably an appropriate use of it (if it is indeed how they measured obesity).
The also used "Community/Environmental Indicators" (listed below under "Built Environment"), which are measured at the metro level. All the variables are listed below. They are available for all the places included in the study.
Percent any physical activity or exercise in the last 30 days
Percent physically active at least moderately
Percent eating 5+ servings of fruits/vegetables per day
Percent currently smoking
Chronic Health Problems
Percent in excellent or very good health
Any days when physical health was not good during
the past 30 days
Any days when mental health was not good during
the past 30 days
Percent with asthma
Percent with angina or coronary heart disease
Percent with diabetes
Death rate/100,000 for cardiovascular disease
Death rate/100,000 for diabetes
Percent with health insurance
Parkland as percent of city land area
Acres of parkland/1,000
Percent using public transportation to work
Percent bicycling or walking to work
Park-related expenditures per capita
Level of state requirement for Physical Education classes**
Number of primary health care providers per 100,000
Correlation of Fitness With Class/Education; Black And Latino Middle Class; And More « Welcome to the Doctor's Office — June 10, 2011
[...] THE CORRELATION OF FITNESS WITH CLASS AND EDUCATION by Lisa Wade [...]
Jack — June 10, 2011
This really doesn't seem like that hard of a problem to solve.
1. stop subsidizing (and possibly start taxing) the production of nutrient poor, high calorie foods
2. start subsidizing the production of nutrient rich, low calorie foods
3. provide incentives for major grocery chains to build stores in major cities
4. limit food stamp and other government assistance program purchases to nutrient rich, low calorie foods.
5. implement a voucher program for bus or bicycles to facilitate travel to and from grocery stores for those without cars.
john — June 10, 2011
Man, like any other animal, will seek the cheapest (in the human case this can mean money, in all cases it relates to effort) tastiest (in the human case this is partially cultural but largely genetic; meats and sweets) food around.
The current typical America industrialzed diet thrives because of these two factors - its cheap and tasty. Moreover it temporarily amneliorates the modern stressors of long commutes, long hours, etc. Additionally its reinforced by group think (media, advertising etc) and market forces.
It takes a tremendous amount of personal will, effort and education to overcome these powerful forces.
Just my 2 quarter pounders worth.
Gilbert Pinfold — June 10, 2011
It looks like whatever it is that makes people happy, wealthy and well educated is the same thing that makes them engage in healthy behaviors and build healthy environments. On average, that is, obviously, but it shows up across populations. Also, there are some interesting special cases like the Viking outpost, Minneapolis.
Mortisha — June 10, 2011
"healthy, low-calorie food tends to be more expensive that calorie rich, nutrient poor food"
This is a problematic statement that get repeated too often and is not challenged enough (IMHO).
It is more the very basic skills and knowledge to turn a few cheap ingredients into a decent healthy diet that is rare.
I'm not talking gourmet skills - but very basic how to use a cooktop and kitchen utensils. And the weird idea it has to be a long & complicated process to cook a meal.
In a past life i taught homeless and disadvantaged youngsters basic life skills on how to manage in the big world. All had zero idea how to budget, work out a food plan, shop or cook a very simple meal.
All (including adults) would literally walk past the basic food sections, fruit veg,pasta,rice,etc and head straight for the industrial prepackage unhealthy sections not for the $ difference but they were completed clueless and intimidated on what to do with all that other stuff.
I worked on the extreme end of the problem but the attitude exists to various effect in all unhealthy communities. It is more about lost skills and knowledge than lack of dollars.
Mortisha — June 11, 2011
Canned or frozen veg /fruit can be just as good nutrient wise as fresh and can be zapped in the microwave just as quick as any other packet. And very very cheap. One reason that people don't think that option is you never see those used on TV shows or in cookbooks as fresh veges are more showy for the camera. There are stacks of shortcuts - but this is not a cooking blog so i won't go on. The comment was not about guilting people about past choices but pointing out a lot of basic community knowledge is lost in this area.
This is guide is a good start, http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/FoodPlans/MiscPubs/FoodPlansRecipeBook.pdf but I found many people need someone to walk them through a plan like this to see how it is actually done "in real life" and gain the confidence to realize it is not that hard.
Josh — June 11, 2011
So Portland and Oklahoma city have the same avg income, but Portland is more fit.
Must be all the bikes!
Sarah — June 12, 2011
Portland v. Oklahoma City have very different weather. If you look at the fitness v. education plot, many places corresponding to points below the fit can get scorching hot, whereas places above the line have cooler weather. If you have to belong to an air-conditioned gym in order to not keel over while exercising, you won't exercise much, even if there are bike lanes. If it is frigid outside, you might not want to go outside to exercise either, but you might burn more calories trying to stay warm at the bus stop.
Malcolm — June 13, 2011
I'm kind of surprised that no-one else has mentioned my area yet, particularly because New York has a pretty atypical kind of profile in comparison to other areas studied.
New Yorkers are fourth highest in terms of average income, less likely to be obese than the national average, slightly more likely to eat adequate amounts of fruits/veg, and naturally MUCH more likely to walk/bike or use public transportation in a given day. And, yet, NY only ranks 26th out of 50 in terms of personal health indicators, and 30th in terms of environmental indicators.
A lot of the reason for the relatively low ranking is that NY is freakin' HUGE in terms of population density, so that works out to mean fewer per capita green spaces and exercise venues. But it's also because, in spite of slightly healthier eating, slightly fewer smokers, more moving around in the course of a day, lower rate of obesity, and all that, New Yorkers still get relatively little exercise and tend to die somewhat more than average from cardiovascular disease.
I think that rather complicates the picture of what constitutes fitness: it's not just about eating right, keeping thin, making money, and maintaining a minimal level of physical activity. If it were, then my area would be somewhat better than average in its ranking. As it is, it's smack in the middle of the two lower scatter plots, and sits as a weird outlier on the fitness-to-income plot, which might not be the case were income adjusted to reflect cost-of-living.
EDUCATION WORLDWIDE NEWS » The Correlation of Fitness with Class and Education — September 12, 2013
[...] (source) [...]
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