Lifestyle and exercise

Political hardliners 'fitter' than 'fence sitters'

“Being an extremist is better for your health than holding moderate views,” the Mail Online reports.

A very much tongue-in-cheek study presents evidence that “armchair socialists” and their right-wing counterparts (“armchair generals?”) are more active than those with more moderate political views.

The study found that people at both ends of the political spectrum – left and right – were more physically active than those in the political centre.

People who sit on the fence, it seems, spend too much time sitting on the couch as well. 

This lighthearted look at the association between political beliefs and activity levels was based on people self-reporting both, which tends to make it less reliable. It is quite possible, for example, that “political extremists” tend to be self-deluded about how active they actually are.

There is also a case to make that the term “political extremist” used in the media is neither helpful nor accurate as it conjures up images of violence. This use of extreme in the study referred to people who self-identified as “very far right” or “very far left” on the political spectrum. Being a democratic socialist is not the same thing as being a 70s-style “Freedom for Tooting” Trotskyist revolutionary. Similarly, wanting to pull out of the EU and restrict immigration doesn’t mean you want to goose step through Trafalgar Square.

Despite the end-of-term tone of the study, there could be some relevance to its findings. Political activists, especially during elections, do spend significant time plodding the pavements, delivering leaflets and knocking on the doors of potential voters.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Sydney. There is no information about external funding.

The study was published in the Christmas issue of the peer-reviewed British Medical Journal, which publishes a few lighthearted “studies” around the festive period. The study is open access so it is free to read online or download as a PDF.

The Mail Online’s picture desk went to town on this study, with photos of UKIP leader Nigel Farage, comedian Russell Brand, London mayor Boris Johnson and Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls; all used as examples of “extremists”.

More seriously, it is debatable whether left- and right-wingers, especially those who are members of democratic parties, can all be classified as “extremist”. When the study used the term extreme they were referring only to the extreme ends of the political spectrum in views, not in necessarily in actions.

What kind of research was this?

This was a cross-sectional study of nearly 30,000 European adults, looking at the relationship between political beliefs, activity levels and sitting-down time.

The authors point out that the term “armchair socialist”, which originated in 19th century Germany, is used to characterise middle class people who make political pronouncements without engaging in political activism. Similar terms are “limousine liberal” (in the US), “champagne socialist” and “armchair revolutionary”.

A right-wing alternative could be “armchair general”; somebody who is happy to fight for a better world as long as somebody else is doing the fighting.

Their purpose, they say, was to find out whether this is literally true – whether people who identify themselves as left wing spend more time sitting than other groups. They point out that if this is true, their health could be compromised. 

In the interest of balance they also looked at people who identified themselves with right-wing views.

What did the research involve?

The data analysed in the study came from a survey in 2005 of 29,193 adults from 32 European countries, conducted on behalf of the European Commission. The survey included a question on political affiliation as well as a questionnaire that assessed physical activity and sitting time at work, home, at leisure and when travelling.

The question on political leaning asked respondents to rate their political orientation from 1 (far left wing) to 10 (far right wing). (In this the authors perhaps mistakenly assumed that socialists would define themselves as far left). The far left wing were defined as having scores of 1 or 2,  far right-wingers were those with scores of 9 or 10 and people with scores of 3-8 were described as politically centrist.

They used the data people gave on weekly minutes of vigorous intensity activity, moderate intensity activity, walking, and sitting time, to summarise their total physical activity.

What were the basic results?

The authors say their findings refute the existence of a (literal) “armchair socialist” and that people at the extremes of both ends of the political spectrum were more physically active than those in the centre.

Those who described themselves as on the right reported doing 62.2 more weekly minutes of physical activity (95% confidence interval (CI) 23.9 to 100.5) than those in the political centre, and those who were on the left did 57.8 more minutes (95% CI, 20.6 to 95.1).

People with right-wing political affiliations reported 12.8 minutes less time sitting a day (95% CI, 3.8 to 21.9) than the centrists.

Data was missing from a lot of respondents (26.2%).

How did the researchers interpret the results?

There is little evidence to support the literal notion of armchair socialists, say the authors, as socialists – defined here as being on the far left – are more active than the mainstream in the political centre.

“It is those sitting in the middle (politically) that are moving less, and possibly sitting more, both on the fence and elsewhere, making them a defined at-risk group.”

Perhaps they are suggesting (not entirely seriously) that centrists and the politically uncommitted should be encouraged to move off the fence and adopt stronger political views in either direction, to improve their activity levels and therefore their health.

The authors do conclude with the following disclaimer “the research … was not intended to imply epidemiologically credible health risks of political centrism”.


As the authors point out, all the data used in this study was self-reported, which makes the results less reliable. The high percentage of missing data also reduces confidence in this study.

This was a cross-sectional study, which means we cannot be sure which came first – people’s political views or their exercise levels. Perhaps being very active leads to stronger political views rather than vice versa; or perhaps the type of personality who adopts strong views also goes overboard on exercise.

Despite the lighthearted tone of the study there could be a ring of truth about its results. As anyone who had been involved in grassroots politics (or any other type of campaigning work) can tell you, most political activity consists of stuffing envelopes, delivering said envelopes to hundreds of houses (and trying not to get your fingers bitten in the process) and standing around in community centres waiting for votes to be counted.

NHS Attribution