An online survey conducted with 1,200 participants, between the ages of 24 and 44, who were questioned about their exercise habits revealed that almost 75 percent of them reported getting at least one workout a week into their schedules. 77 percent reported that they preferred to work out alone. While the results of this survey paint an extremely optimistic picture regarding American exercise habits, there are many things about these numbers that are just not adding up.
Dr. Walter Thompson, researcher at the American College of Sports and Medicine, cautions that these reports are likely exaggerated. He claims that other research has revealed that closer to 20 percent of Americans work out, leaving nearly 80 percent who do not exercise. There is a huge discrepancy between the reported findings of this online survey and what Thompson claims are the actual rates of Americans exercising.
According to the CDC, a more accurate representation of Thompson’s stated statistic is that only 20 percent of Americans exercise the recommended amount, which includes both aerobic and weight training.
The currently suggested amount of exercise for an individual is 150 minutes of moderately intensive cardiovascular activity and about two weight training sessions a week.
It appears that the low compliance rate reflects a tendency of American’s to overlook the importance of weight training in their workout routines. The CDC’s study also reports that 51.6 percent of Americans get the necessary amount of aerobic workouts while only 29.3 percent were strengthening their muscles at the prescribed frequency.
These rates are up from a 2010 study conducted by the CDC through telephone interviews that concluded that 43 percent of individuals got enough cardio exercise while 22 percent did enough weight training and only 18 percent did enough of both types of exercise.
Despite reports of drastically increasing compliance rates with exercise regimens and widespread insistence that exercise is a keystone to managing weight, obesity rates are still rising. In June 2013, obesity rates had already surpassed those of last year, creeping up to 27.1 percent compared to 26.2 percent for all of 2012.
So, why are the changes in American obesity rates not adding up to reflect the changes in exercising habits?
It is possible that one clue lies in the truth of Thompson’s statements regarding people’s tendencies to over report their exercising behaviors. A common term used to describe this phenomenon in psychological research is social desirability bias, which occurs when people falsify their responses to reflect what they perceive to be a more socially acceptable way to answer.
With such a cultural emphasis on exercise as a way to lose weight, and a culturally accepted shaming policy fueling weight discrimination in most facets of society, it is possible that people over report their exercise habits to avoid feeling shame about their lifestyles.
Perhaps this is why 77 percent of those claiming to exercise regularly prefer to do so in relative seclusion.
Shame plays a more complex role in weight management than exaggerating claims of exercise habits. A study published in July of 2013 found that those who experienced weight discrimination were twice as likely to be obese later. This could be in part because shame creates a reduced perception of capability and those who don’t feel capable experience drastic drops in motivation.
Gregory Chertok, a consultant for sport and exercise psychology at Telos Sport Psychology Coaching in New York said, “When people doubt their ability to accomplish a task, when they don’t feel competent, motivation plummets.”
For those who exercise regularly and don’t see much change in their weight, the shame of failing to manage their obesity in the most surefire way known can add to this lack of perceived self-efficacy, increasing the odds that the person will abandon their routines and miss out on the other health benefits that exercise offers as well.
Many health experts assert that a great way to combat insecurities about exercising is to incorporate small amounts of movement into everyday life, gradually increasing the duration and intensity. By setting small goals, such as taking the stairs or incorporating quick walks into breaks at work, confidence can build along with the habits that could help make these lifestyle changes enduring. Building healthier habits and attitudes around exercise could result in statistics adding up to show Americans who equate exercise with something other than a socially approved behavior that they do not feel competent to partake in.
Written by: Vanessa Blanchard