According to the front page story in yesterday’s Metro – the world’s largest free newspaper with 1.3 million copies distributed to UK commuters every morning, a large proportion of police officers in the Met – Britain’s biggest force, do not fall into current BMI guidelines for a ‘healthy weight’. Apparently, 52% are ‘overweight’ and 22% are ‘obese’. The writer further implies that these officers are not fit enough to do their jobs. In fact, he seems to suggest that the two are the same thing.
This is not the case.
It is entirely possible to be both fat and fit. There are a lot of people who would be deemed fat by current standards who get plenty of exercise and maintain a good level of fitness. What’s more, people who are heavy and fit tend to live longer and healthier lives than people who are thin and unfit, and have similar outcomes to people who are thin and fit. In other words, the weight has absolutely nothing to do with health or fitness. Fitness is a separate issue, and a far more important one than size.
It may be true that larger people do tend to engage in less exercise in general. There are two main reasons for this. First, many people deemed to have bodies that do not meet culturally imposed external standards of acceptability have frequently been told that they need to exercise to lose weight. Now, exercise is incredibly good for your health and offers far reaching benefits for everything from heart health to mental health. What it isn’t good for is weight loss. Repeated efforts to sweat themselves into a smaller clothes size without any effect whatsoever means that many fat people have developed an absolute hatred for physical pursuits and have forgotten how incredibly good it can feel to move our bodies for the sheer enjoyment of it. Related to this, stigma about weight means that many people are embarrassed to be seen exercising. They think that people will laugh at them and call them names. Sadly, they may be right. But the worse people feel about their weight, the lower their confidence in their abilities, the less activity they engage in, and the less they tend to enjoy it when they do.
This shaming has to stop. The best thing that people can do for their health, whatever their weight, is to move more. Indeed, the amount of movement needed to maintain a decent level of fitness is surprisingly low, and people who are not currently fit can experience huge gains very quickly.
But let’s get back to our bobbies. This news story was based on a report from the largest review of police pay and conditions in 30 years. You can check out the original here. The so-called health data used in the report is seriously flawed. Even so, it does not say what the Metro says it does – that overweight officers who fail to lose weight should be sacked. What it does say is that annual fitness tests should be introduced for all serving officers. Those who fail should be given assistance to improve their fitness levels. Repeated failures may lead to dismissal.
It doesn’t seem unreasonable that serving police officers need to be fit enough to do their sometimes physically demanding jobs. But healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and approximately 80% of the size we settle at is influenced by our genes. Would anybody suggest that weight lifter Holley Mangold, who at 5' 8" and 374 pounds has just qualified to represent her country at the 2012 Olympics, would not be able to lift a body if the need arose? Or that Vince Wilfork, a pro-American footballer named to both the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro team in 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2011, would not be able to run after a criminal?
Headlines like the one above are not only highly offensive, but they serve to perpetuate an anti-obesity rhetoric that is unhelpful, ill-informed, scientifically unsound, and would be considered extremely prejudicial if directed against other groups of society. To suggest that heavy officers are unfit for the job is nothing more than outright discrimination and doesn't belong on the front page of Britain's third largest newspaper.