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Centrists sit more, ‘on the fence and elsewhere,’ tongue-in-cheek research finds

For the sake of their health, political centrists might want to choose a side.

Despite what the epithet implies, “armchair socialists” do not sit more and move less than their counterparts to their political right, according to the findings of a study published last Friday in the Christmas issue of the medical journal BMJ.

“It is the politically centrist majority who are more likely to be physically inactive,” state the study’s authors.

And, yes, this is an actual, peer-reviewed study, although, like other research published each year in the BMJ’s Christmas issue, it has been designed and written with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

The term “armchair socialist” — aka “limousine liberal, “chardonnay socialist,” “champagne socialist” and “armchair revolutionary” — refers to “people who are politically left wing but make pronouncements about politics rather than actively helping the cause,” write the study’s authors. They trace the term back to a group of 19th-century German economists who derided academics advocating for social change, calling them “socialists of the chair” (Kathedersozialisten).

Adrian Bauman (who has conducted a lot of serious research on the epidemiology of physical activity) and two of his colleagues at the University of Sydney decided to test the validity of the term for BMJ’s Christmas issue. “Are self identified left wing political views associated with increased sitting time and decrease physical activity?” they asked.

A large survey

For the study, Bauman and his colleagues analyzed the responses from 29,000 adults (from 32 European countries) to the 2005 Eurobarometer survey. The survey asked, among other things, how long the respondents sat and/or were physically active each week. It also asked the respondents to rate their political affiliation on a 1-to-10 scale, with 1 being “far left wing” and 10 being “far right wing.”

They found the following:

  • People on the far left reported slightly more physical activity than those on the far right — and 2½ times more physical activity than those in the political center.
  • People on both the far left and far right did not differ from those in the center on the amount of moderate physical activity they engaged in each week.
  • When it came to sitting time, those on the far right sat for slightly less time each week than those on the far left. But people on the far left did not sit any longer, on average, than those in the political center.

Out agitating in the field?

“Our findings refute the existence of armchair socialists,” write Bauman and his co-authors. In fact, they add (with British spellings), “busy people at both ends of the political spectrum do not seem to have as much time [as people in the political center] for idleness. The increased time spent walking and doing vigorous physical activities suggests that they might be out agitating in the field, mobilising the community, and activity distributing ideas and propaganda.”

“Centrists and the politically uncommitted may be at greater risk of non-communicable diseases because of their inertia,” the researchers conclude. “… Health gains through increased physical activity may result from encouraging centrists and the politically uncommitted to consider moving ‘off the fence’ in either political direction.”

You can read this amusing study — and the other quirky ones in the BMJ’s Christmas issue — on the journal’s website.

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