Differing Views on A Study Linking a Woman's Size and Enjoyment of Exercise

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Last fall, I ended up doing something I hadn’t done before – I tuned in regularly to Dancing with the Stars. One of the lures for me was watching Amber Riley, who shot to fame on the TV show Glee. Amber will admit that she’s a large woman, but she also loves to dance. And dance she did, surprising many people in winning the Mirrorball Trophy by (using her words, not mine from episode 1) “throwing this weight around.” Don’t believe me? Here’s a link to one of her dances during the run of the show’s season.

    And I was thinking about Amber a lot when I read a recent New York Times’ Well column entitled “How Being Heavy or Lean Shapes Our View of Exercise.” This column reported on a Chinese study that used brain scans to determine the responses by women of different sizes to the thought of exercise. In this study, researchers recruited 13 young normal-weight women along with 13 women who were overweight or obese. These participants were all shown a variety of images that depicted either an active lifestyle or a sedentary lifestyle. The women were directed to imagine themselves performing the actions shown in the images. As they were doing this, scans from function MRI machine looked at their brains.

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    The scans found that key portions of the brains of the larger participants didn’t indicate any enjoyment when they saw the physically active slides; in fact, another part of the brain that is linked to negative emotions lit up in the scan. In comparison, the brains of the participants who were leaner had an opposite effect. The researchers also found that brains of the participants who were larger showed no reaction when shown images of exercise, suggesting that their bodies were unfamiliar with how to be active. The larger women also indicated in a survey prior to the scans that they believed exercising would lead to embarrassment.

    This study offers some interesting insights – and also leads me to personally question the results. So I shared the New York Times story with some of my friends, most of whom were middle-aged women who had a variety of body types and fitness levels, to see what they thought about this column. Here are their remarks based on their experiences (as well as a few of mine):

    • Comments offered early in life may make a big difference in life-long self-perception of exercise. “Even at an early age, I never had an athletic body. Or at least that's what I was told,” a friend from Colorado said. “I've carried that with me forever including today. I remember once getting a pedicure and the lady doing my toes commented on how athletic my calves looked and asked if I was a dancer. I seriously thought she was talking to someone else. How could that be that someone could perceive any part of me as athletic? So even now when I hike or swim or go skiing or kayaking, I love how it makes me feel (strong, energized, healthy) once I'm doing it, but I never feel  ‘at home’ --  like I'm just not made for it.”
    • Body size does not mean that a person likes or doesn’t like exercise. One friend of mine who lives in Maryland reported, “As a woman who spent 40 years as a thin person and who has gained nearly 100 lbs in the past 25 years, I can speak from a unique perspective. I have always been a sedentary person. When I was exercising regularly, I never really enjoyed it. I had to force myself to run three miles every other day, and also did some aerobics and weight training. Hated it but knew I felt better when I exercised. At my current weight I feel no differently. I'm currently taking yoga once a week and try to walk 20 minutes a day. I still have to really push myself. My brain has always said the same thing, ‘I don't feel like exercising.’”
    • Body size may not actually indicate fitness level. “People constantly ask me if I'm a runner, and I haven't run more than down the driveway after a runaway dog/kid or the recycling guy since college (which was, um, 20 years ago now),” explained a friend from Texas. On the other hand, I always carried extra weight around and was even cautioned about it by a physician when I was in my teens. But I always have led an active lifestyle and grew up participating in athletics, including playing women’s basketball at the collegiate level. And even as I was nearing the age of 40, I was playing a fairly high level of tennis – including beating fairly athletic guys who were in their 20s.
    • Life can take over and mess with fitness levels. “I have always loved exercise but, much like one-on-one time with my spouse, I have put it off for this stage of my life when it's all I can do to handle a full-time job and three children 10 and under,” the friend from Texas said. “Did I mention at this stage that I also value sleep more than exercise or said spousal relationship?!?” I can understand her sentiment, having been a caregiver for aging parents since 2005. While I was extremely active before my parents needed my help, I now have to be more creative in finding ways to squeeze exercise into my life. Eventually, I plan to spend more time on my fitness level, but for the moment, life has intervened.
    • People do judge body types – but some instead look at fitness levels. “People judge us a lot by body type and we don't even know it,” my Colorado friend said, and I have to agree, having seen some friends make some disparaging remarks about larger people at the gym or the swimming pool. However, another friend from Texas said she tries to look at people through the lens of fitness instead of body size. “I am a runner (27 years of pounding the pavement) and I do look at the 'fitness level' of people. It may be called ‘judging,’ but I’m not sure. I value fitness and know what fitness requires. A fit person has a healthy look, almost a glow. I know numerous larger people who are fit. I happen to have genetics on my side, thankfully. I am the largest woman in my family (both sides--mom's and dad's). That's probably because they were so darn poor--dirt poor. My heaviest weight has been 155. I am now 130 but still the heaviest woman in our family. My family is NOT fit...they are just small. On the rare occasion when I visit the family, I am teased about my ‘big butt’ or as they like to call it ‘Sanders.’ (The Sanders side of the family, third times removed, were larger people.) Back to the original point, I do not judge by size. However, I do appreciate fit people, those who exercise and watch their diet, whether they are large or small.”

    My friends’ sentiments suggest that there’s a more complex answer to the brain’s role in fitness beyond the findings of the Chinese study. Perhaps there's a generational or cultural difference between my friends' experiences and those of the study participants. However, I believe it’s important to realize that a woman’s size can't always be equated to her interest in and enjoyment of being physically active, her ability to move or her general fitness level. If you don't believe me, check with Amber Riley!

  • Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

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    Reynolds, G. (2014). How being heavy or lean shapes our view of exercise. New York Times.

Published On: February 05, 2014