Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Happy Couch Potatoes? Inconceivable!

In a recent survey of Americans, “Seventy percent of respondents said they were completely or somewhat satisfied with their physical health and 66 percent said the same about their physical appearance.” This is despite some 60% of Americans allegedly being overweight or obese. Taking both sets of figures as given, at least 30% of Americans (assuming the minimum overlap) are overweight/obese and nonetheless reasonably happy with their health.

Hmm. Could it be that some people simply consider the gains from heavy eating and non-active leisure time worth the costs? Could it be that some people actually prefer their current situation, all things considered? Surely that’s at least a possibility. But the usual suspects immediately assume false consciousness. The rest of the article positively oozes paternalism:
“I wonder if Americans walk around and see other people who are overweight and not physically active and that’s becoming an accepted norm,” [Bill Howland, director of research at IHRSA] says. “That’s alarming if that is in fact happening.”

Still, Americans do know exercise is good for them, results indicated. Eighty-seven percent of those polled said they believe exercise plays a major role in health.

“There’s a big disconnect,” says Howland.

“We’ve got to get the behavior to match the beliefs,” he says.

Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit fitness group in San Diego, says getting Americans moving is clearly easier said than done.

“We’re just passively sitting back and letting this inactive lifestyle become the accepted way,” he says.
If people just didn’t understand the health consequences of their choices, that would be cause for some concern – and possibly a justification for providing people with better information. But the figures here, on the contrary, indicate that people understand the situation. As Howland’s last statement implies, he is not content with making sure people have the approved beliefs – they must also display the approved behavior. The health-gestapo just can’t stand the notion that some people willingly accept health risks in return for other compensating gains.


Glen Whitman said...

Agreed, both sets of figures are questionable. Survey data can be unreliable for various reasons, and health data unreliable for other reasons (such as, for instance, the problematic nature of BMI calculations). That's why I made the crucial "taking both sets of figures as given" caveat.

Glen Whitman said...

Granted, there are adults who are functionally like children. But I choose to give adults a *presumption* of the ability to make their own judgments. In the case of children, they haven't had the time to learn the relevant information, nor have they had the chance to fully absorb notions of cause-and-effect. Their brains just aren't fully formed yet. Adults have fully formed brains, and they've at least had the chance to learn how the world works.

Also, while it might seem obvious that some adults can't make good decisions, it's not obvious which ones they are. Behaviors like overeating or engaging in risky sports, for example, can reflect differences of preferences rather than bad judgment. I don't trust the state to decide who is presumed rational and who is not based on their behavior. As the quoted article demonstrates, a heck of a lot of people don't grasp the idea of heterogeneous preferences.