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Stigmatization of the Overweight Affects Their Level of Physical Activity

Stigmatization of the Overweight Affects Their Level of Physical Activity

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  • In recent decades, there has been a rise in the prevalence of obesity and discrimination against people who are overweight.
  • New findings report that individuals who perceive discrimination on the basis of their weight are less physically active than those who do not perceive discrimination.
  • Interventions that aim to reduce weight bias at a population level, may have greater impact on health as opposed to interventions that encourage weight-control.

People who feel that they have been discriminated against because of their weight are much less likely to engage in physical activity compared to people who do not perceive that they have suffered any such stigmatization.

The study according to researchers from the University College of London, was the first study to examine the relationship between weight discrimination and physical activity in a large population sample.


Association Between Perceived Weight Discrimination and Physical Activity

For the study, researchers looked at data from more than 5,400 men and women aged over 50 who were participants in the English Longitudinal Study of Aging.

Participants were asked how frequently they experience five discriminatory situations in their day-to-day life:
  • being treated with less respect/courtesy
  • receiving poorer service compared to other people in restaurants/stores
  • people act as if they think you are not clever
  • being threatened/harassed
  • receiving poorer service or treatment than other people from doctors/hospitals
The responses were assessed on a scale from 'never' to 'almost every day'.

The findings report that 4.9% of the participants perceived weight discrimination. But this discrimination varied according to the weight status or how overweight a person was.

Among the obese, 13% of the participants reported being discriminated compared to 0.9% of overweight participants.

The younger and less wealthy reported higher weight discrimination.

One of the reasons for lack of physical activity could be that overweight and obese people who feel stigmatized may be more self-conscious about exercising in front of others for fear of attracting undesirable attention, leading to embarrassment or teasing, said Dr Sarah Jackson (UCL Epidemiology and Public Health) who led the research.

"People who have experienced weight-related discrimination may lack the confidence to exercise in public. They may also begin to believe the negative stereotypes against themselves as lazy and worthless, leaving them wondering why they should bother trying to be active," said Dr Jackson.

The odds of being inactive was 60% higher in people who felt discriminated against because of their size. They had 30% lower odds of engaging in moderate or vigorous exercise once a week than their peers.

The research found a person's body mass index in itself was not the factor that affected their levels of exercise, further indicating that individuals who experience discrimination are likely to be less physically active, regardless of their weight.

"Given the substantial benefits of being physically active for both physical and mental health, interventions that aim to reduce weight bias at a population level - for example through schools, local communities or national campaigns - may have greater impact on health than those that encourage people to lose weight," said Dr Jackson.

"A Health at Every Size approach may be helpful in encouraging people to develop and maintain healthy habits, including regular physical activity, for the sake of health and wellbeing as opposed to weight control." Dr Jackson added.

The study had limitations, including that physical activity data and weight discrimination were self-reported.

The research was published in the journal BMJ Open.


  1. Sarah Jackson et al. Association between perceived weight discrimination and physical activity: a population-based study among English middle-aged and older adults. BMJ Open; (2017) doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2016-014592

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