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Obesity Myth: Obese Individuals Are Less Active

sharma-obesity-active-livingThe second most common misconception about obesity, addressed in our article in Canadian Family Physician, is the idea that people living with overweight are any less active than people with “normal” weight:

“It is very common to hear that obese people are lazy and should get off the couch. This discriminatory bias against those with excess weight is not only widespread among the lay public but also among health professionals, even those in regular contact with patients with obesity.

Yet, the most recent data from the Canadian Health Measures Survey, a study of a nationally representative sample that used accelerometers to measure physical activity, suggest otherwise.

Based on objective measures, only 7% of Canadian children and youth8 and 15% of Canadian adults9 meet physical activity guidelines. When split by body mass index categories, obese girls average 11 159 steps per day, while normal-weight girls average 10 224 steps per day. Obese boys average fewer steps (10 256 steps per day) than their normal-weight counterparts (12 584 steps per day), but they have a larger body to carry. Translating this physical activity level into calories expended (kcal per day) would likely show that obese boys actually burn more calories on a daily basis.

Similar findings are observed for Canadian adults. Overall, the message is that there is a physical inactivity crisis in Canada—most people do not meet the recommended amount of physical activity required each day for health benefits—and every Canadian, regardless of body size, would benefit from an increase in physical activity and a decrease in sitting time.

Rather than focusing on burning calories, interventions should aim at reducing sedentary activities and increasing physical activities to improve overall health and general well-being.”

Auckland, NZ


  1. This makes complete sense. My background is in physical education and I spent a few years working in the community integrating physical activity and nutrition education programs. Exercise was and activity was easy to get people involved in and even consistently doing (we used pedometers to track activity levels for weeks at a time). Nutrition beliefs, habits, and education was where we saw the biggest potential for improvement.

    Anything on that?

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  2. It’s admirable that fat people are as active as they are. In practical terms, exercise is one of the areas that they suffer the most abuse and discrimination. Every fat person i know has a story to tell about being ridiculed while exercising. When I was at a YMCA in my hometown, some jack*** proclaimed, loud enough for everyone to hear, including the women he was talking about, “Well, I’d hoped to use one of the treadmills, but the fat chicks have taken over.” As though they had no right to be on them. I was ready to jump up and choke him, but a sweet Southern Belle saved his life by saying, “Now, Sugar, everyone has the right to exercise.”

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  3. I’m sorry to be unpleasant, but you’ve really mischaracterized the data here. First, as regards children: the Canadian Health Measures Survey data (Statistics Canada, “Physical activity of Canadian children and youth: Accelerometer results from the 2007 to 2009 Canadian Health Measures Survey,” Catalogue no. 82-003-X, Table 4) show that obese boys and girls each spend more time sedentary than their normal-weight cohorts, and obese boys spend less time in light activity, a lot less time in moderate activity, and about the same (i.e., very little) time in vigorous activity; obese girls spend more time in light activity and the same amount of time in moderate and vigorous activity. It’s plausible that boys may be burning more calories overall because they are taking more steps, but this is only your hypothesis, not data.

    You then say that the same is true for adults, and this is even less accurate. (Statistics Canada, ” Physical activity of Canadian adults: Accelerometer results from the 2007 to 2009 CHMS,” Catalogue no. 82-003-XPE). Table 4 shows that in both genders, obese people get fewer steps in over the course of the day, and spend more time sedentary and less time in moderate or in vigorous activity; obese men spend less time in light activity, and women more.

    We certainly should not stigmatize obese people by labeling the obese as ‘lazy,’ but they are clearly less active than normal-weight people, not getting the health benefits of physical activity (particularly of the moderate and intense kind), and *should* get off the couch, whether it’s an important driver of their weight problems or not.

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