If you’re like most Americans, you may already be thinking about your fitness-related New Year’s resolutions. Considering one of the most popular goals is to get in shape (particularly after all of those holiday feasts), the reality is that 4 in 5 resolutions will fail by February.
But what if the reason most Americans fall off the proverbial wagon isn’t because they aren’t dedicated, but because they don’t know what getting in shape actually means by a reputable (and scientific) standard?
To learn more, we surveyed over 1,000 Americans about their perceptions of fitness and compared their responses to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on the various standards of aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity recommended for a healthy lifestyle. Curious how much extra time you might be spending at the gym – and how it might be burning you out? Read on to learn more.
Changing Your Expectations
According to the Physical Activity Guidelines established by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP) and Health.gov, the average adult needs two exercises to enhance their health: aerobic and muscle strengthening.
When it comes to moderate-intensity activities (like brisk walking), the CDC recommends 150 minutes a week to stay in shape. Americans said they managed to fit in a little over 93 minutes of weekly moderate-intensity aerobic activity, on average, but thought they needed over 145 minutes to stay fit.
If you’re comfortable upping the level of workout intensity, you’ll only need 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity (like jogging or running). Unlike the casual stuff, Americans thought they needed to spend nearly 98 minutes each week on these more intense sessions to stay healthy –23 minutes more than the CDC's suggestion. On average, they did less than 42 minutes each week, falling under the recommended goal.
Unlike cardio, the CDC says there’s no limit to how much time you can commit to muscle strengthening. Given the added benefits of weight loss and improved body mechanics, you should be spending two days each week focused on various muscle groups like your legs, arms, back, and abdomen. Men and women surveyed were close, averaging 1.7 days a week, but they believed they needed more than three days of weight training.
Drop and Give Me 23
Before you start underestimating your own fitness capabilities, it might be worth considering what the Army puts recruits through during basic training.
Push ups and sit ups may be among the most dreaded exercises for a lot of people, but their health benefits may make you appreciate the work it takes to achieve perfect form. Push ups will help work the muscles in your chest, arms, back, and abs, while sit ups work both the upper and lower abdominal muscles for what could be considered the perfect workout pair.
Men surveyed said they could do 52 sit ups and 27 push ups, on average, but thought it would take 65 and 40 rounds, respectively, to be in tiptop shape. By U.S. Army standards, male recruits between the ages of 22 and 26 are only required to do 43 sit ups and 31 push ups to pass physical training.
Women also overestimated how much of each exercise they needed to do to be fit. While they guessed it would take 49 sit ups and 23 push ups to consider this workout a success, the Army says women should be able to do 43 sit ups and just 11 push ups to pass performance standards.
A Better Barometer of Fitness
Mainstream media projections of ideal beauty standards and weight can leave girls as young as 5 years old uncomfortable with their bodies. Despite being marketed as beautiful, thinness doesn’t necessarily translate to healthy for everyone. Certain fats can be especially dangerous and hard to detect, and being underweight can produce complications of its own, including reduced immune functions, infertility, and developmental delays.
According to our study, women felt the most body confident when they were underweight, with a body mass index (BMI) under 18.5. Women whose BMI ranged from 18.5 to 24.9 rated their body confidence only a 3.4 on our scale of five, while overweight and obese women rated their confidence 2.8 and 2.1, respectively.
In contrast, men were the most comfortable when they were at a healthy weight and felt almost the same about their bodies whether they were overweight or underweight. Overweight men ultimately rated their confidence nearly the same as women with a healthy BMI.
Stepping Up to the Scale
When it comes to getting healthy, the scale can’t tell you the whole story. Without being able to account for bone density, body fat percentage, or muscle weight, the scale can only paint a partial picture of health. More importantly, if you’ve just started your fitness journey, it can take days or weeks before the scale starts to budge regardless of how much progress you’re really making. For some people, relying on the scale can be a roadblock to success.
When asked what their ultimate goal weight was, men hoped to lose nearly 6 percent of their total weight, while women hoped to drop over 13 percent of their current weight. While they believed their respective goals would take between five and seven months to achieve, on average, only roughly half (53 percent of men and 46 percent of women) thought they’d accomplish them in 2018.
When it comes to buzzwords making their way around the fitness community, “toned” could be the new “skinny.” Despite the popularity of the word, there’s no real consensus on what it means to be toned (except that it probably doesn’t include a lot of soft, fatty bits). Perhaps more importantly, we learned 31 percent of women identified a “thigh gap” as part of their ideal figure. Especially popular among younger women and on social media, the thigh gap has been linked with other unhealthy “thinspiration” trends setting unrealistic standards of beauty and fitness for women.
Among both men and women polled, “tone” was the most common word used to describe their ideal bodies. Women also used terms like “thin” and “fit,” followed by “healthy” and “strong.”
While getting toned was important to men as well, “muscle,” “body,” and “lean” were also common ways to describe their perfect body. Idealized body standards don’t just affect women – in fact, there have been changes to what the “perfect body” for men looks like in the last century. Among these standards, we found more than 1 in 5 men felt they needed a six pack to have obtained their ideal image.
Redefining What It Means to Be Fit
Whatever health and fitness goals you’re planning to set in the new year, making sure you aren’t overtraining is an important step in finding success. A majority of Americans surveyed had the wrong idea about how much time spent exercising was needed to be considered “fit,” and studies have shown pushing your body too far may end up having the opposite effect. More importantly, as you set these goals, focus on how exercise can make your body healthier – not just skinnier. Your body will thank you for it in the long run.
We collected responses and opinions of over 1,000 Americans across varying demographics. Forty-eight percent of our participants were male, and 52 percent were female. Participants ranged in age from 19 to 83 with a mean of 36 and a standard deviation of 11.1. We weighted the data to the 2016 U.S. Census for gender, age, and location. Hypotheses were then statistically tested where applicable.
We collected data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to compare their recommendations for healthy amounts of exercise and body mass index against what our survey participants recommended and self-reported. The CDC makes recommendations for weekly minutes of vigorous and moderate intensity aerobic activity as well as days per week of muscle-strengthening activities.
We also collected data from the Army’s Basic Training Physical Fitness Test, which sets certain athletic requirements for moving on to Advance Infantry Training. These requirements were cross-referenced against what our respondents reported themselves as capable of doing as well as what respondents assumed a healthy individual should be able to accomplish.
We did not have a validated measure of body confidence available to us, so we created one. We asked each respondent to rate his or her level of confidence on a scale of one to five, with five being “very confident.” This enabled each person to choose where they fell on a universal scale. Nonetheless, these data still rely on self-reporting.
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Fair Use Statement
Think you’ve picked up a few workout tips from our data to feel better about getting fit? Feel free to share what you’ve learned with your readers for any noncommercial use, just make sure to include a link back to this page so they can see our study in its entirety.