The heath community is baffled by this one: a massive 17 nation study shows that leisure time readers are thinner than non-readers. Same for museum, theater, and movie-goers. In fact an interest in ideas, art, and knowledge is associated as strongly as exercise with a lower body-mass index.
You’re probably wondering what’s new about that? It’s a widely-known fact that obesity is related to income and education through better nutrition, gym memberships, and the like. But the surprise is that this study controlled for education and other measures of socioeconomic status. Regardless of background, highbrow is lowfat.
Everything you do burns calories: taking a shower, making a sandwich, even sleeping; but sedentary activities don’t burn very many. The less intellectual activities in the study— card playing, socializing, watching tv, and shopping—log in at less than 100 calories an hour, about the same as an hour with a documentary film or flipping through the pages of The New Yorker. Yet the lower brow pursuits all correlate with a higher BMI.
Here’s a theory: it’s the food labels.
Healthy-sounding labels are duping dieters. The Center for Science in the Public Interest calls it food label chaos. All those little black squares and big red check marks on the backs of boxes and fronts of cans have us fooled. Maybe avid readers have better diets because book literacy translates into health literacy.
Not so smart, not so good for you
Phrases like ‘Smart Choices’ and ‘Better for You’ can be emblazoned on products with no nutritional merits. These phrases are not informational but merely marketing fluff; not a tool for the buyer but for the seller.
For a survey published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 89% of respondents (most of whom were college-educated) described themselves as competent, informed label readers. When tested, only 69% could actually interpret labels correctly. And even those that understood label claims were stymied by nutrient counts and serving sizes—you know, the single juice box with 56 grams of sugar that is labeled for 1.4 servings, or the 7.5 servings in a bag of 26-cookies.
Americans on average spend $60 a year on books and $60 a month to look good—things like gym memberships, hair cuts, and skincare. More than 45 million of us belong to heath clubs, and the number keeps growing, but so do obesity rates. At the same time, we’re dropping an hour of reading every year, and attendance at museums, concerts, theater, and other cultural events is in a steady decline.
Maybe we should be hitting the books, not the gym.