Among the many recent headlines in obesity studies is the announcement by the Mayo Clinic that obese women participate in an average of one hour of vigorous activity per year.
On the face of it, this is a distressing headline, but my first thought was to ask what in the world said women actually do in the other 8,759 hours of the year? If nearly 3,000 of those hours are spent sleeping, that leaves well over 5,000 hours of – what, exactly?
This winter I had the unpleasant opportunity of experiencing My 500-Pound Life, that horrifying reality television series about people so severely obese they are bed-bound. I didn’t cross the 500-pound mark, thank goodness, but I had the flu and fought a 102° fever for five days. I was so ill that I wasn’t making it to the potty accurately and so weak that when friends began to insist I go to the emergency room, I couldn’t figure out how to bathe and dress, or imagine how I could stay upright for the trip and the wait. Besides, what could the ER do except maybe hydrate me, which I was doing myself?
When the fever finally broke, I remained in bed a few more days, still very weak although, at least, continent. But there came a day when I couldn’t stand myself, my pajamas or my sheets any more. I showered. I got dressed. I changed the bed linens.
And that’s when I found out how much fitness ground I had lost in ten days. I was sweating and panting when I finished remaking the bed. It felt like I’d climbed a mountain.
What the stories that grew out of the Mayo Clinic’s findings overlooked, I realized, is that exercise for an obese person is different than it is for a thinner person. It’s a shame that this fact goes unrecognized because it only enhances fat phobia. The TIME Magazine article’s subtitle is “They don't spend enough time doing fat-burning activities like jogging.”
First of all, “they”? How…elitist this word is in this context. “They,” here, suggests too strongly that there is a class that is “other,” “alien,” lazy, slothful, taking up space and resources that could be given to “us”.
And jogging? Do doctors really expect that an obese woman is going to put on sweat clothes and run jigglingly down the street or on a gym treadmill? Do doctors know what that would do to her joints? Do doctors understand the concept of embarrassment?
For the purposes of this post, I’ve concocted Hannah, who is 5’4.5” and 220 pounds. Her BMI is 37.2, which makes Hannah solidly obese, 7.3 points above the top number for overweight. When Hannah goes out to weed the crocuses, which are finally springing to purple hope here in Brooklyn, she uses up 200 calories in the half hour it takes. Her cousin, Amy, happens to be the same height but weighs 140 pounds with a BMI of 23.7, the high-ish end of normal weight according to the NIH BMI calculator. In a month, Amy will be planting petunias, burning up 127 calories in a half hour.
If Hannah happens to play the piano, she burns 46 more calories in a half hour of Rogers and Hammerstein than her equally talented cousin. If she takes a slow half-hour walk – not unlike going grocery shopping – she burns another 46 more calories than Amy.
The calculator I’m using doesn’t list housework, let alone break it down the way it does speed of walking or what Hannah is doing with her triceps. But scrubbing a bathtub or lifting and carrying laundry are that much more arduous for Hannah than for Amy. Factor in the caloric cost of ordinary tasks several or many times a day and Hannah comes out the winner.
I am obese. I walk dogs for a minimum of three hours a day. I would call our pace mostly leisurely. I’m not out of breath and I’m not damaging my knees. I’m also using 300 calories that an Amy does not in those hours of window shopping or strolling through DUMBO.
I don’t care how sophisticated Mayo’s accelerometers are because I know what a difference there is in the simple task of changing the sheets when I’m recovering from the flu and when I’m in good health.
Do us a favor the next time you see a fat woman walking across a parking lot or snooping around at a craft fair: what is thoughtless movement for you is true physical activity for them. And then, if you’re the sort, bless her for the effort.