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.


andrea said...

two thoughts...

One, I wonder what the gender breakdown is for the satisfaction with physical health and/or appearance?

Two, I think there may be data collection problems here. I have heard recently that the obesity numbers are inflated, and (in terms of the personal satisfaction questions) we all know that how you ask a question has a dramatic impact in how it is answered. Plus, only 1400 people? Doesn't sound like they made it far out of Boston, and the obesity numbers are national, not for the northeast.

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.

andrea said...

fine... the difference is that I think the unreliability means that the analysis is wasted :-P

I guess if we only used good data, we'd hardly get to talk about anything!

Jacqueline Mackie Paisley Passey said...

I think most people just have a really high discount rate on utility now versus utility later. When they are older and miserably sick (or dropping dead at 40 or 50, if we can imagine what people might wish for or regret during the moments of their death) I bet they'll suddenly realize that living a long and healthy life would have been more fun than eating those extra potato chips.

I'm a libertarian, but to play devil's advocate, if we don't let minors do certain potentially destructive things to themselves because we know their judgment isn't very good, what do we do about adults whose judgment and foresight seems to be similarly impaired in some areas of their life?

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.