July 9 ,2018
Most of us do not have the lithe, athletic “body beautiful” that we see on the covers of fitness magazines; but our anatomy gets us where we’re going every day, without too much huffing and puffing—so we assume we are in “good enough” shape.
Some of us even manage to go the gym for an hour or two a week, or to jog around the high school track. We assume that counts as physical fitness.
But we are wrong, according to the findings of an international study conducted in England, the Netherlands, and the United States, and published in April in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. In fact, the researchers found that most people do not objectively assess their level of physical activity.
For purposes of the study—which was fielded among 540 respondents from the United States; 748, from the Netherlands; and 248, from England –participants first reported their perceived level of activity during a specific week using a five-point scale, where answers range from inactive to very active. Then, researchers measured their actual level of activity using a fitness-tracking device worn on the respondent’s wrist.
Who miscalculates the most? In particular, U.S. respondents assumed that they are as active as their European counterparts, and older people believed that they have the same level of activity as young people.
For lead author Arie Kapteyn of the University of Southern California, the differences in how people perceive their fitness reflect their culture and environment. “People in different countries or … different age groups can [see] vastly different [meanings in] the same survey questions,” said Kapteyn, who is the executive director of the Center for Economic and Social Research at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
On the whole, however, Americans demonstrated less physical fitness than subjects from the other two countries. Most Americans, for instance, rely heavily on cars, while the Dutch usually walk or ride bicycles to get to work or run errands.
Overall, respondents from the Netherlands and England believe they have a “moderately active” lifestyle. Participants from the United States, on the other hand, swing heavily to the extremes—with their reports indicating that they were “very active” or “very inactive.”
Older people also over-reported their level of physical activity: Fully 60% of older participants in the U.S. have a more inactive lifestyle than they initially reported; with 42% among the same Dutch age group; and 32%among U.K. respondents.
“Individuals in different age groups simply have different standards of what it means to be physically active,” Kapteyn explained of the results. “They adjust their standards based on their circumstances, including their age.”
The gaps between self-reported data and data from a wearable device highlight a gap in measuring fitness levels. Self-evaluations tend to be inaccurate, Kapteyn added, since they can be interpreted differently by people, depending on their age group and geographic region.
“With the wide availability of low-cost activity tracking devices, we have the potential to make future studies more reliable,” she added.
Indeed, the American College of Sports Medicine said, in December 2016, that wearable technology would be the top fitness trend for 2017 and the near future.
For its own study ACSM surveyed health and fitness professionals worldwide and came up with five “standout” fitness trends for the next couple of years. Among them were:
- Wearable technology: Activity trackers, smartwatches, heart rate monitors, and GPS tracking devices;
- Body-weight training: Not limited to just push-ups and pull-ups, this trend allows people to get “back to basics” with fitness;
- High-intensity interval training: HIIT involves a circuit of short bursts of activity, followed by a short period of rest or recovery (performed in less than 30 minutes);
- Educated trainers: Professionals certified through programs accredited by the appropriate authorities; and
- Strength training: Rated as an essential part of a complete exercise program (along with aerobic exercise and flexibility) for all physical activity levels and genders.
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