On Hotel Housekeepers, Roseto, and the Junking of Needless Stress

meowser-48.jpg posted by meowser

On Saturday, Living400LBS had an excellent post about the widespread prejudice that people who have physical-labor-intensive jobs are thought to be “not exercising at all” if they don’t go the gym or participate in some sort of leisure-time “workout.” Apparently, gardening is exercise if you do it yourself, but it’s not exercise for someone you’re paying to do it. Or, as Living400LBS so cogently put it, “By this measure, Marines in boot camp probably get ‘no physical activity whatsoever.’”

I could go on for the next six or seven weeks about the classism implicit in this assumption. But for once, I won’t. Because Stef, in comments on this post, mentioned that she had seen a study that claimed hotel housekeepers who were told that what they did for a living counted as exercise had better health indices than those who were told their jobs were not exercise. This was the first I’d recalled hearing of it. Later, on the same thread, ShannonCC provided a link. (The story is about 2 years old.)

Sure enough, the study was conducted by a Harvard psychologist named Ellen Langer, and here’s what it said:

She divided 84 maids into two groups. With one group, researchers carefully went through each of the tasks they did each day, explaining how many calories those tasks burned. They were informed that the activity already met the surgeon general’s definition of an active lifestyle.

The other group was given no information at all.

One month later, Langer and her team returned to take physical measurements of the women and were surprised by what they found. In the group that had been educated, there was a decrease in their systolic blood pressure, weight, and waist-to-hip ratio — and a 10 percent drop in blood pressure.

(ETA: Yes, I know they said “blood pressure” twice. So does every other account of the dozens I’ve read, which leads me to believe that this was how the press release phrased it.)

I can’t believe this is the first I’ve heard of this.

For that matter, I can’t believe this is the last I’ve heard of this.

(Aaaaand as it happens, it probably wasn’t: Mo Pie wrote about it here on Big Fat Deal. I can’t imagine I didn’t see it then; for whatever reason I must have been having a Bad Mirror Neuron Day and it just didn’t register with me.)

But anyhoodoovoodoogrisgrisgumboyaya (sorry, had to get that out of my system), the study did get some coverage in the New York Times magazine. Interesting pull-quote here:

Langer sees the study as a lesson in the importance of mindfulness, long a subject of her research, and which need not involve Buddhism or meditation, she stresses. “It’s about noticing new things; it’s about engagement,” she says.

Really? I’m all for meditation and mindfulness, but I could swear it’s really about not heaping tons of needless stress on people about what they’re supposedly not doing right.

Think about it. Remember the Roseto study, which examined people (most of them inarguably fat) in a small, close-knit community who despite having anything but “heart-healthy” habits lived longer than average, had less heart disease than average, and didn’t record a single heart attack for someone under 45 years old until 1971, when the community started breaking up? (And lest anyone think these folks have some sort of magic genes, the study also showed that when people moved away, the Roseto effect disappeared, and succeeding generations born outside of Roseto didn’t demonstrate it either.)

According to the study (which Sandy also wrote about on Junkfood Science), Rosetans experienced just as much routine stress as most Americans did, but one thing they didn’t have to stress out about was whether they belonged or not. They came of age at a time when Italian immigrants were often heavily discriminated against in America, but in their own community they didn’t have to worry about being shunned for eating the “wrong” things, being the “wrong” weight, doing the “wrong” amount of physical activity, having the “wrong” hair texture or skin tone, or whatever other stupid bullshit “upwardly mobile” Americans just love to snub each other over.

I gather things in Roseto might not have been as utopian as it might appear on the surface, or the close-knit town might still exist. But still, every once in a while they might mention this study, or something like the maid study, or the Women’s Health Initiative studies, which tell you over and over again that we are not machines, that the reasons for health and weight go way, way beyond people’s staggeringly oversimplified assumptions…and these stories just get buried. Again and again and again. Imagine a culture where people women people weren’t shamed and blamed for every little thing they did or allegedly failed to do, where they actually felt good enough as is. Everything would be different. Everything. And it’s widely assumed that in such a culture, our economy would collapse, because people mostly buy products to save face with the people surrounding them, and if they felt no need to do that, they’d just drive the same 10-year-old cars and wear the same 10-year-old clothes and nobody would spend $150 on moisturizer or upgrade their computers when their old ones worked perfectly well.

People who believe that haven’t talked to any fat people, though. If we felt better about ourselves as a group, more of us would DEMAND more money, DEMAND more clothing choices, DEMAND more respect, and instead of feeling like we were battling the tides, instead of feeling like we’re the only fat freaks in town who don’t care about weight loss, we’d have the numbers on our side. That doesn’t mean every demand would be met; fate plays a role, too. But we’d have a way better chance if there were more of us — not more fat people, but more fat people (and, for that matter, people who are not fat who live their lives in mortal terror of becoming so) who believe they have a right to all those things, that it’s not their fault if they don’t get them. Whatever money you’d lose by someone skipping the $150 moisturizer because the $5 bottle of Vaseline Intensive Care is good enough for her, you’d gain back from a size 20 chick (me?) showing up in the store of her choice and buying the outfit of her dreams at last. People buy stuff to affirm themselves, too.

In any case, our culture’s heaping needless amounts of stress on people for not measuring up is something the health mavens of America will HAVE to address, if they really want to see results that mean anything. Sometimes I wonder if they really do, or whether they care more about people needlessly freaking out about their health continuing to be a major profit center.

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17 Responses to “On Hotel Housekeepers, Roseto, and the Junking of Needless Stress”

  1. Lindsay Says:

    This is trippy. Just… trippy. And it makes me want to go out and learn a lot more about all the things you’ve mentioned in this excellent post.

  2. living400lbs Says:

    This is fantastic. Thanks!

  3. meerkat Says:

    “people weren’t shamed and blamed for every little thing they did or allegedly failed to do, where they actually felt good enough as is.”

    This has always bugged me! People seem to think that telling you you are totally unacceptable (and perhaps by doing xyz you might be able to stop being a horrible person) is the only way to get anyone to do anything. No activities are rewarding for their own sake, and why would anyone seek out any accomplishment unless we told them how horrible and worthless they are without it? (Any other accomplishments they may have made are, of course, pathetic and irrelevant, because otherwise our argument would fail.)

  4. Caitlin Says:

    This actually made me feel about 1000x better about my own life. And then I realised my (fingers crossed) upcoming new job would probably meet “the surgeon general’s definition of an active lifestyle” and felt even better. The hell with needless stress. Woo!

  5. Godless Heathen Says:

    upgrade their computers when their old ones worked perfectly well

    Bwahaha! Sorry, I’m constantly stuffing new RAM into my system when I can afford it. I’m not showing off, I just like things to work faster dammit, go faster! Finish the damn task already! Making .avi files is like watching paint dry, a little more RAM means it’s like watching faster paint dry.

    Sometimes people upgrade just to make themselves happy (or relieve some impatience).

  6. The Bald Soprano Says:

    Godless Heathen: I think that’s exactly the self-affirmation part of buying stuff that Meowser was talking about.

  7. BrieCS Says:

    This post kind of made me want to cry. I have been struggling for three years now with bad health, overstress, and being 30 pounds overweight (according to my doctor) or “chubby”/”big” according to my family and friends. I only weigh about 170 pounds, and while I do want to lose the weight, it feels like no matter what I do, it’s not enough for anyone. Going to the gym isn’t enough, cutting portions and choosing the right foods isn’t enough, and it ends up not making a difference for me in the end, either, because I overstress, I try to buy new clothes and see my size is still XL or 14 (or, God forbid, occasionally a 12 in the “big” brands – it’s so demeaning), or I feel like I am not meeting the expectations of my husband and my family.

    I’m not that overweight, but this sort of thing effects women of all sizes, and it’s incredibly unfortunate how common it is.

  8. Maritzia Says:

    I have to admit that since I stopped worrying about what other people think (especially doctors) and started demanding help and leaving doctors who wouldn’t or couldn’t treat me as I needed, that my health has improved dramatically. Granted, I still have FMS, CFS, Diabetes, and hypertension, but they are all being well treated now, I feel so much better, I’m more active, more involved in the world around me. And, yes, I still weigh between 260 and 280 (I go up and down depending on the time of year).

    The most important thing I’ve changed about my health is how I think about me!

  9. Maritzia Says:

    And, I have to agree with Godless Heathern *laughs*. My husband and I are constantly making little upgrades to our systems. But then, we’re gamers, and we like our games to run as smoothly as possible, so we’re always upgrading as we can afford it. On the other hand, we have massively decreased other spending. I haven’t spent money on new clothes in a couple of years (you don’t like my old comfy clothes, then just don’t look at me!). We don’t eat out much because we prefer cooking at home. Since I feel so much better, I put in a nice garden every year which supplements our grocery list. So really, it balances out.

  10. spacedcowgirl Says:

    OMG, this is such an amazing take on this and my world was totally rocked when I saw the reference to that study in the comments. Thank you for elaborating–the more I learn about the relationship between weight, health, diet, HAES, exercise, etc. etc. (and by “learn” I mean come across posts like this, not “read trite reporting in Good Housekeeping“) the more I am… insulted, sort of, that scientists either think or are willing to claim they think that they have it all nailed down to calories in, calories out, thin is healthy and fat is not.

    Of course, as I have long ranted, addressing the health problems linked to excess stress and lack of sleep would strike at our whole dysfunctional work-yourself-to-death culture and (as you mentioned) consumer engine driven by the belief that we are never good enough as is, so these things just get totally glossed over.

  11. meowser Says:

    BaldSoprano, you pretty well nailed it. Upgrading because your current speed doesn’t meet your needs is a lot different from having to have the latest toy just because everyone you know has it.

    And BrieCS, I hope you come back and hang around the other Fatosphere blogs some more. I think you’ll find many, many others who have been where you are.

    Thanks, everyone, for all your support!

  12. DaisyDeadhead Says:

    Yes, great post.

    Unfortunately, I do sell diet supplements, most of which are about the power of suggestion as you have described so well … it’s just so very bizarre when some (more or less) ..average-sized woman asks ME, “will this help me lose weight?” I am like, how the hell should I know? Do I look like I take that? But I try to answer, “Well, Oprah says it does.” (Acai)

    Seriously, though, they see no irony or weirdness in these question whatsoever, and the fact I am probably 30-50 lbs heavier than them, just isn’t registering somehow. (?)

  13. Vanessa Says:

    Very interesting. I didn’t know that. I wonder if there have been any other studies to confirm this one (that is what usually happens)

  14. wriggles Says:

    the widespread prejudice that people who have physical-labor-intensive jobs are thought to be “not exercising at all” if they don’t go the gym or participate in some sort of leisure-time “workout.”

    Within fat acceptance too I’m afraid. I have repeatedly tried to tell people that the idea that poor people are fatter is a simplistic overview.

    I notice BFD’s take was that knowing you’re excising can make all the difference.
    Because it’s all about the exercise.
    Forgetting that what Ellen Langer did with these women, is go throught everything they did. All their skills and just what they managed to achieve, everyday( thanklessly).

    IOW, Ellen Langer, turned them into middle class professionals for a day.

    I hope now that a study has pointed this kind of thing out, people in FA will think twice before repeating rot about how the poor fat are fat because they can’t get to gyms and (have to )eat bad food.

    But I have my doubts.

  15. wriggles Says:

    I notice BFD’s take was that knowing you’re excising can make all the difference.

    Yep, that should have been ‘exercising’, I wonder if that was Freudian.

  16. angrygrayrainbows Says:

    Wow… Meowser… this post is really awesome.
    That last bit about explaining that people buy things to affirm themselves too – not just out of fear and low-self-esteem, I think is very important.
    Right now, it seems that our culture has so much of a scarcity mentality to it. If we don’t hurt ourselves and keep things going in some harder-than-it-needs-to-be way, then the whole world will explode. It is beyond the imagination of a fear-based, scarcity mentality to imagine that things might actually be better if they changed, because it is so desperately holding onto what it has with an obsessive passion.
    I wonder if our focus on short-term profits also have something to do with this in that if there was a change from fear-based marketting to self-affirming marketting, sure, there may be some temporary slow-down and businesses don’t want to deal with change for long-term improvement if there is any short-term hit.
    Now that we’re in a global recession… this could be an opportune time to change marketting and a scarcity/fear minded media, since short-term is going to be hard to come by anyway in this environment…
    Sure, it’s prolly unlikely… but one can hope. Sigh.

  17. Kat Says:

    “…for whatever reason I must have been having a Bad Mirror Neuron Day and it just didn’t register with me.”

    “But anyhoodoovoodoogrisgrisgumboyaya (sorry, had to get that out of my system)”

    😀 Love it when you make me giggle AND get your point across so well.

    Great post!


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