What is exercise?
That’s the question raised by the “Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index,” compiled on a monthly running basis by pollster Gallup. In fact, the bigger question could be, what is “well-being”?
According to the first question in Gallup’s poll, the definition of “exercise” is apparently “30 minutes or more of whatever you call exercise.” And based on that definition, hey, a lot of people exercise! Depending on the month, anywhere from 63 to 72 percent of Americans do it at least once a week – not enough to really help get fit much but it gives us a much less depressing number than when they ask who “exercises” at least three times a week (49.6%).
The first problem is that 30 minutes of mystery exercise tells us nothing — are people counting 30 minutes of incidental walking in a day? We don’t know. But it’s really a big difference whether they ran or walked or exercised with weights or just changed into gym clothes and hung out.
The half-hour minimum is arbitrary too. My Crossfit workout yesterday took me a total of 22 minutes, so it doesn’t count, but if I go on a 40-minute nature walk on a Sunday it does. So the survey fails to assess who’s actually doing a healthy amount of exercise. Kind of knocks the wheels off the whole thing.
But that explains why fewer people say they “exercise” in January than in June: to exercise in January you have to have a shred of commitment, and either go to a gym or brave the elements or find something you can do at home.
The whole thing takes an even uglier turn when Gallup tries to break down the results along socioeconomic lines:
Look! Rich people can afford to exercise and poor people can’t! Or the poor people have to work more and rich people don’t, or something. Gallup leaves that up to our imaginations. Mine tells me that “rich” people have more reason to exaggerate to the pollster than poor do: there’s much more implied status in that answer. But let’s assume the answer is what it is. Gallup then asks another random question:
What the hell? Well, on this one Gallup takes it upon themselves to interpret: “Lower income Americans, a group less likely to report frequent exercise, may tend to live in neighborhoods where there aren’t safe places to exercise.” (By the way, Gallup could easily gather and include location data as proof that most of these low-income Americans live on the mean streets, but chose not to. I mean, it’s not like they do this for a living or anything.)
If only you could exercise in your own home…
In the battle to define what exercise is — what it is that people need to be more healthy, crave more wholesome food and acquire more self-esteem — surveys like this are a colossal failure. The sad part is that they could do it, if they wanted to; they just don’t want to. Their findings get picked up by the New York Times just fine as it is, thank you.
But in the end, rich or poor or overweight or “safe,” this survey should mean nothing to you. The only person who should matter to you is the one in the mirror. Start simple, start at home, or yes, even walk for a half-hour a day if that gets you started.
Just get started.