Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Skiing vs. Obesity

The European Union has released new obesity statistics. Europeans have been gaining weight, and the headline statistic is that more than one half of EU adults are overweight, the first time that has been reported. The obesity rates are between 7.9 and 24.5 percent, depending on the country, which is to say, they are not nearly as bad as the rates in the United States.

I looked through the statistics country by country and saw a correlation between downhill skiing and obesity rates. The six countries in Europe most strongly associated with downhill skiing are Andorra, Austria, France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. Five (all but Andorra) are EU member counties, and these five skiing countries of the EU all have obesity rates below the EU average. Switzerland is near the lowest in Europe with an obesity rate of 8.1 percent. Italy, France, Austria, and Germany have higher rates, between 9.9 and 13.6 percent, but still well below the EU average of 15.5 percent. I couldn’t find reliable obesity statistics for Andorra, but news reports suggest that it is near the average for Europe, which would make it something of an exception to the pattern.

This inverse connection between downhill skiing and obesity rates seems to hold elsewhere. I looked specifically at the Scandinavian countries. All four countries have obesity rates near or below the European average, but comparing them to each other, they rank in obesity according to the way they rank in the prevalence of downhill skiing, with Norway having the lowest obesity rate, and Finland, the highest.

The same pattern holds among U.S. states. Colorado is the state most associated with skiing, and is also the only U.S. state with a Europe-like obesity rate. Colorado’s obesity rate is 19.2 percent, and the other skiing states are generally below average in obesity, with the exceptions of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Alaska. The three southern Appalachian states known for skiing, Georgia and the Carolinas, are also exceptions. Low obesity rates are also found in the District of Columbia and Hawaii, and in general, political leanings are a better predictor of obesity among U.S. states than skiing is. But it’s worth noting that Utah, very much a skiing state, is the one relatively thin state among the strongly Republican states.

The suggestion that obesity and skiing don’t go together will hardly come as a surprise. Downhill skiing is one of the more physically demanding sports to begin with, and it is safer and more fun when done in a more vigorous style. It’s no secret that vigorous exercise can burn off extra body fat. My guess also is that it is important that skiing is at its peak during the coldest months of the year, when most people are at their most sedentary. If I’m right, going outside and exercising for hours on weekends in January and February may be enough for most people to fend off long-term weight gain. I hope someone eventually can pinpoint the specific fat-burning effects of skiing. For example, which makes a bigger difference: skiing for hours at a time, or in very cold weather? In the meantime, the data is strong enough that I can say that there definitely is some kind of connection between skiing and staying thin.