Stepping Behind Headline Statistics

“Four in ten middle-aged adults are failing to manage even one 10-minute brisk walk a month”

“Four out of every 10 forty- to sixty-year-olds take a brisk 10-minute walk less frequently than once a month”

These headlines shocked and bothered me. I wonder whether, when you hear or read them, your immediate reaction is the same as mine. I interpreted it to mean that 4 in 10 people are hardly moving in a month.  

But that didn’t seem to make sense to me. I therefore thought I would look into the data a bit further. This is an irresistible temptation for a forensic accountant, trained not to take numbers at face value!

I have a busy day so I didn’t spend as long as I would have liked but I did discover the following.

First, all the published data[1] is in age bands of 16-24, 25-34 etc ending with 65-74 and 75+. Therefore, I could not locate data for the band mentioned in the headlines of 40 to 60 years (I have asked for it though).

Secondly, I looked at the survey questionnaire[2]. The question series seemingly prompting the data used for the headline grabbing statistic was “We would now like to ask you some details about the activities you have done in the past 4 weeks….” And “For each activity that you have done, please answer these questions.  During the past 4 weeks, on how many days did you do the activity? How much time did you usually spend doing that activity on each day that you did the activity”. It therefore seemed to me to be entirely possible that if people, say, went for a run, a bike ride or a swim instead of a walk, they would be one of the 4 in 10, who I assumed from the headlines were hardly moving.

Interestingly, there is also data in the survey about level of activity/inactivity.  If you are inactive, this is defined as someone who does less than 30 minutes per week of moderate activity, which is defined as “activity where you raise your heart rate and feel a little out of breath”.

Therefore, the people, I assumed first thing this morning, were those who hardly moved would certainly fall into the inactive bracket (as they don’t walk for 10 minutes once per month whereas “inactive” relates to those who don’t exercise for 30 minutes once per week) and would be a subset of those people. Total percentages of “inactive” people were 20% of those aged 35 to 44, 22% of those aged 45 to 54 and 28% of those aged 55 to 64. This is significantly less than the 4 in 10 (40%) of people who were referred to by the press this morning.

I concluded therefore that it is not the case that 40% of 40 to 60 year olds are hardly moving, they are just not choosing to exercise by walking. I applaud the efforts to encourage people to exercise more for their own well-being but I am very pleased to see that we do not seem to be starting from as low a base as this morning’s headlines initially led me to believe! 

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There are times when you have complete and blind trust in something. That childhood memory of a parent holding your hand a little tighter at the crosswalk and telling you to “hang on” or “wait”, without any further explanation.

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