Big Fat Facts Big Fat Index

British police and press confuse BMI with fitness

It sounds like straightforward weight discrimination, right? British cops being fired or docked pay because of their BMIs?

No. That's not it at all. They're instituting an annual fitness test, and police officers that fail it three times in a row could have their pay lowered.

The problem here is that the press in the UK (and the US) think that being classified as "overweight" or "obese" is exactly the same thing as being physically unfit. The link between "being out of shape" and "overweight and obesity" is so strong in their minds that they are using the two concepts interchangeably in headlines.

The root cause: Reuter's inaccurately titled article, Obese UK police officers face pay cuts. Reuter's is one of the world's biggest news services, and many newspapers copy their articles without any further research, if not word-for-word. If you look up this story now, some of the headlines are a bit more rational. However, when this story first turned up on my newsfeed yesterday, the headlines were consistently as idiotic as the ones above. This is probably because the earlier articles were more heavily dependant on Reuters.

Based on these headlines, it seems that most members of the press don't understand what "overweight" and "obese" mean. "Overweight" is defined as a BMI between 25 and 30 and "obese" is defined as a BMI over 30. A 5'-8" tall person who weighs 165 (11 stone) is overweight. A 5'-8" tall person who weighs 200 pounds (14 stone) is obese.

There are plenty of people who fall into those categories who are very fit; not only strong, but capable of running fast over long distances. And guess what? People whose BMIs fall into the "normal" range and especially the "underweight" range can be very unfit. So, this isn't about being overweight or obese at all. It will (presumably) hit unfit, thin police officers just as hard as unfit, fat officers.

Now, I don't know the details of this fitness test. I hope that it takes more than just distance running into consideration, because let's be honest. Heavier people do tend to be stronger while lighter people tend to be faster, and both of those characteristics can be useful to a police officer. Fight and flight, right?

I also hope that they're taking age, experience, and the type of work these officers do into consideration. Some older officers may be less physically fit but have better judgement; better mental and emotional fitness for the job. Some officers may have old injuries that limit their performance on the fitness test, or they may have a physical disability. They may be working desk jobs rather than walking a beat. Officers need to be fit for their particular role.

More importantly, being a perfect physical specimen doesn't make up for being a dumbass, having poor judgement under pressure, being lazy on the job, being a bully, being a racist, or any of the other major flaws that have occasionally been observed in officers of the law. In fact, if the idea is to turn the British Police Services into an Order of Modern Supermen* then perhaps these issues should be even higher priority than physical fitness?


Having a regular fitness test for cops is not a crazy idea, as long as it's used appropriately and with common sense.

However, for Christsakes, people. Overweight/obese ≠ out of shape. The categories "overweight" and "obese" are based on weight/height ratios, not level of fitness.

*used in the generic, inclusive sense, of course.

Weight loss drug causes liver damage, loss of sleep, possible homicidal rage | More armchair quarterbacking

closetpuritan March 16th, 2012 | Link | BMI confusion

Ugh, the stupid, it is hurting my brain. You'd think that all those "Can you be fit but fat?!?!?!" studies would at least help to disentangle things in people's heads, but maybe not.

I had a fresh example of people not understanding the BMI categories yesterday. One of my coworkers is about 5'2" and was talking about how her doctor wanted her to lose 20 lbs to help with a weight-linked medical condition (something about her stomach placement being too high). She was saying that she weighed 150 lbs and was "not overweight". At 5'2" and 150 lbs your BMI is 27.4, right in the middle of the overweight range.

DeeLeigh's picture
March 16th, 2012 | Link | I just described it to my

I just described it to my mom as "a gigantic shit raft of stupidity." I'm proud of that expression. I'll have to use it in a post some time!

richie79's picture
March 16th, 2012 | Link | This report made the front

This report made the front page of the Metro under the oh-so-clever headline 'The Blobby Bobbies of Scotland Lard'. The original report might have focused on general fitness, but the ever-reliable British media have very much emphasised the weight aspect in order to twist it into another obesity epi-panic outrage piece. I don't fundamentally object to the idea of fitness tests for frontline officers, subject (as you point out Deeleigh) to flexibility for those such as desk-based detectives, professional drivers etc who possess other vital skills and that don't necessarily need to be in peak physical shape. But it would be a massive mistake if it were to be based on BMI, not least because (as I seem to recall happening with the US Army) very fit and / or muscular people can be categorised as 'overweight' or even 'obese' and excluded by an inflexible and flawed system I disliked even before the powerful began using it to determine which of us should be granted full access to the rights and benefits of society. If only the outraged commenters on some of those press articles could open their minds and understand how they've been lied to and brainwashed.

"What is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right" - Albert Einstein

DeeLeigh's picture
March 17th, 2012 | Link | "The Blobby Bobbies of

"The Blobby Bobbies of Scotland Lard?"
Oh, my mind reels from the massive wit and cleverness. How very amusing. That headline writer must be a real star. I wonder where they found him. Perhaps at a bus stop with his 12-year old friends and several gallons of (hard) cider?

diane March 18th, 2012 | Link | So out of the six titles

So out of the six titles above only one (Metro) bothers to mention that it's only if the officer fails the fitness test. And no mention that anyone who fails the fitness test, fat or thin, would have a "problem" if they're not on a desk job on the force. (I have not yet read the articles linked, just going by the titles.)

I’m concerned with how comfortable the powers-that-be are in adopting the Insurance Companies policies of using financial punishment against fat people in their workplace. It's as if they're trying to make these types of policies seen as the "norm" in how businesses can discriminate against one segment of their employment population. Meanwhile we know fat people face serious stigma when trying to get a job in the first place due to fat hatred, much less being penalized for being fat once their work experiences and abilities have secured them a position. Sadly ever so slowly these types of policies keep seeping into "common" practice. Although I realize that certain professions such as the military, police, firefighters, etc. do need to have a basic fitness level to perform their jobs. However the reporting of this by the media seems to be targeting fat officers rather than unfit officers and the punishment is ala the Insurance Companies scheme of financially targeting the person.

DeeLeigh's picture
March 18th, 2012 | Link | Diane, thanks so much for

Diane, thanks so much for your comment. You're right. The glaring error in the headlines serves to normalize weight-based discrimination. Most people won't read past the headlines and won't get the details - that it's fitness, not size, that's the issue. "If the police can discriminate on the basis of weight, why than maybe it would be a good idea for me to do it in my business! Nobody likes looking at those people."

And disturbingly, yes, they can discriminate. Few jurisdictions ban weight and height based discrimination.

It's so very dangerous.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

© 2000-2020 Big Fat Blog and its authors, all rights reserved. Big Fat Blog, Big Fat Facts, and Big Fat Index are our trademarks.