What Your Gym Membership Reveals About Your Social Status

People with less education tend to be more active throughout the week than college graduates, according to preliminary research presented at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco, Calif. this week. The college-educated, however, engage in more intense kinds of exercise when they are moving.

"We see that those with lower levels of education -- less than high school, high school -- are actually getting more steps in within the day, so they actually have higher levels of activity,” lead investigator Jarron Saint Onge, an assistant professor of sociology and health policy at the University of Kansas told The Huffington Post. "But those levels of activity are not necessarily at high levels of intensity.”

There's already a strong link between higher income (which is related to education) and better health, but this study is unique because it culled its physical activity data from accelerometers that participants wore over seven days, as opposed to self-reported exercise levels that can be prone to bias.

“People might want to impress the interviewer, or they don't really know how much [exercise] they've actually done,” explained Saint Onge. “This gives us a pretty reliable and accurate measure of the physical activity that's actually being done.”

Saint Onge analyzed data from over 3,744 study participants and separated them out based on their level of educational achievement. He found that, on average, those who had at least some high school education recorded a total of 9,843 daily steps on average. Those who had graduated college, on the other hand, recorded 9,590 steps.

But the quality of activity differed as well. High school grads mostly recorded a low-grade physical activity, indicating perhaps that their exercise was tied to work. College-educated participants, on the other hand, recorded bursts of intense physical activity, or physical activity for the sake of exercise, averaging 27 minutes per day on weekdays and 24 minutes per day on weekends doing moderate to vigorous activity.

After controlling for factors including sleep, Saint Onge found that a completed college education was associated with 27 fewer minutes of sedentary time as compared to other educational levels.

Saint Onge broke down the data even further, separating out the activity by weekdays and weekend. He found that college grads upped their activity on the weekends -- perhaps to make up for what was presumably so much sedentary time during the workweek.

High school grads, on the other hand, slowed down on the weekends. Saint Onge speculated that because higher education levels are also associated with higher incomes, college-educated participants had more opportunities for physical activity, or lived in neighborhoods where they felt safe enough to exercise. He also speculated that there could be a higher level of stigma about being overweight among those with higher education levels, which could motivate them to exercise more.

“But it's also the social status that goes with it,” Saint Onge continued. "Running a marathon or doing yoga — you can see how that increases your social capital and your social networks: 'This is what it means to be high class -- we exercise on the weekends.'”

"People who have higher levels of education have more levels of human capital,” Saint Onge concluded. “They know more about the benefits of education and are more likely to put that education to use for physical activity or other health behaviors.”

The class dynamics of exercise are not a new subject: Saint Onge notes that renowned sociologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote in 1984 that the “dominant class” preferred exercise that could be “performed in solitude, at times and in places beyond the reach of money,” where as lower-educated groups were more likely to participate in team sports or hunting and fishing.

More recently, a new study published in the journal Psychological Science found that people who are good at saving for their retirement are also more likely to take steps to improve their physical health, reports the New York Times. And they succeed at improving their health, too.