Is Your Big House Making You Fat?

by Sandy L on July 6, 2011

In my last post, I was wrote an article about a very distinct absence of rich people at my local lake and it led to some very interesting comments from Kris and Jacq.  Basically they both said that the richer the neighborhood, the less people you see outside playing.  Kris notices it when she drives around her Michigan neighborhoods and Jacq see it when she goes RVing.  The bigger the RV, the less those people are seen outside their camps toasting marshmallows.

Housing Statistics History

The US Government shows the median home size has grown from about 1500 square feet to over 2100 square feet in the last 30 years.  That’s a 40% jump.   Meanwhile, it’s no secret that the Average American is a lot fatter too. (Sorry, I didn’t have exact stats that lined up with these dates, but men are roughly 10% fatter).

Urban sprawl can be blamed for some of it.  Clearly people in cities who have very small houses also do a lot more walking than their suburban counterparts, but what about when all things are equal?   The town I live in technically classifies as a small city.  There are about 40,000 people living here.

Since I have 2 young children, I’ll do a very unscientific study based on the dozen or so parks and schoolyards that we frequent.  Are the parks in the neighborhoods that have 900-1200 sq ft homes with small yards more populated?   Yes, absolutely.  How about the ones near the projects? Jam packed at all times. It’s rare not to see someone playing a pickup basketball there. In the South and West part of town (where the bigger homes are) we are often the only ones there.  Hmmm….there may be something to this theory.

My Personal Housing Story

Growing up in the city, I lived in a 2 bedroom house with lots of people.  At one point in time, we had 7 people living there, 6 of which were adults. We were jammed up like sardines and there were 3 chain smokers among them.  Cough cough.    At the time, I was about 7.   I remember I had 2 places that I could call my own.  One was the back porch, and the other was under the stairs in my front hallway.  We lived in a 3 story apartment building and there was a little nook between the second and third floor steps.  It was similar to Harry Potter’s cupboard under the stairs, but instead of having lighting and a cute little raised panel door to close, I had a stair shaped sheet of 70’s paneling that I would use to slide over the hole and close the area off.  For lighting, I had a flashlight and one corner of a window. I convinced my mom to move some of the items she stored there to go up to the attic.  I had a little bookcase against the wall with some 1940’s encyclopedias that I would read for fun.  It was my little hideout and refuge. I loved that place.  I spent countless hours there when the house was filled with smoke and too many adults..all of which did not want to play with me.   If I were to pinpoint the exact date I wanted a home of my own, it would be at that moment when I was in my little personal hideout and I could do as I pleased.

Sometimes when I’d want to get some fresh air in the winter, I’d take the down comforter off the bed and park myself on the outside porch all bundled up in it like a little Eskimo.   I imagined myself living out in the wild and building a nice little igloo or snow cave in the backyard.  One time a neighbor saw me and asked if I was locked out of the house.  I clearly must have looked strange all bundled up and just sitting there doing nothing but running away with my own imagination.  I assured the neighbor I was fine and was outside getting some much needed fresh air.

Babci is much the same.  If she’s not cooking, sewing or doing laundry, she is pretty much guaranteed to be out in her yard gardening.  For her, the garden was her little private getaway that no one intruded on.  If you don’t have the luxury of a lot of space, I really think people feel cooped up and are more likely to seek the outdoors as their form of refuge.

Bigger Homes Enslave You

Nowadays we have a family of 4 living in a 1700 sq/ft house.  It’s plenty big for us, but it doesn’t take much for it to feel small.  Keeping it feeling large requires constant vigilance.  We also love to spent time outdoors.  The main thing  that keeps us from being more active is house repairs and maintenance.  The bigger the house, the more to up-keep, the more lawn to mow, the more to paint.  In fact, it seems that even JD at Get Rich Slowly is starting to realize the time it takes to have that kind of dream house.  Does his recent weight loss have anything to do with his desire to downsize his housing as well?   For me, the first major drop in physical activity came when we bought our home. Suddenly we had decisions to make.  Do I fix something up or go for a bike ride. Many times the crazy wallpaper and shag carpeting in our fixer made that decision a no brainer.

Part of me dreams of having a big farmhouse in the country where I can plant a little orchard and raise a few chickens. I love the idea of having Babci living with us in a little guest cottage where she can tinker in a big garden and watch the children running around and playing. However, the other part of me doesn’t want to be enslaved to the time and money involved to maintain such a place.  Am I really going to ever want to mow an acre when 0.2 seems like a chore on some days?  That I don’t know.   All I know is that I want to postpone that decision for at least a few years.  Before I knew any better, I’d drive by a big beautiful farmhouse and say, “I’d love to live there.”  Now, more often than not, I say “wow, I wonder how long it would take to repaint that house or mow that field.”

If you would, I’d love for my readers to take an unofficial poll/survey.  Think of your fittest, most active friends.   Are they also the people with the smallest and most utilitarian housing?   For me, it’s a mixed bag. In general, yes, fitter people have smaller homes, but there are exceptions.  The main exception for me are people who have  a lot of acreage.  Generally these folks bought a ton of land because they love the outdoors.   They are outside all the time tending their property as a necessity and also as a passion.  Then there are the people who farm out their housework so they have more time to do sports. Not everyone can afford to do that though, so I’d say that in general that’s more rare in regular middle class neighborhoods.

What do you think?  Does super sizing your home also super size your waistline?  In general, are you heavier now than you were when you lived in a smaller place?


{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

101 Centavos July 6, 2011 at 6:15 AM

Good observations, Sandy. Generally yes, the larger the house, the more places to sit around on your butt and get fat. The richer the neighborhood, the less people on front porches (if there are any front porches), as kids and adults cocoon themselves in game rooms, theater rooms, and air-conditioned backyard kitchens. Although we’re in friendly terms with our neighbors, we hardly ever see them.

Inside, it’s easy to lose 4 people in a 2,800 sqf house. In fact, we’ve mandated to the boys that evening time must be spent in the family room, whatever they feel like doing. It’s where I do the bills at a corner desk, Mama does the ironing and reads her design magazines or watches, and the boys can complain and roll their eyes at having to be there. In the summertime though, I’m mostly outside doing yard work as long as it’s light.

Out in the country, our little house is 880 square feet, and we’re outside most of the time, with lots of fun stuff for everyone to do. For keeping in shape, just walking around it keeps you plenty fit. So does tending the garden, digging holes, fixing fences, cutting up brush and wood, and variety of other activities. Your home renovation projects have the same effect. They keep you off the couch and moving around.


Sandy L July 6, 2011 at 8:06 PM

101 – Thanks for sharing those observations and your tips for family time. It’s amazing how little time we spent upstairs in our bedrooms (aside from me who’s office is in one of them). I guess it is true that small places bring people together.


The Lost Goat July 6, 2011 at 6:49 AM

If you have a big enough yard in the county, you can just fence it in and run cows/goats/sheep/chickens across it, and never have to mow:)


Sandy L July 6, 2011 at 8:06 PM

Goat – Sounds divine to me.


Nicole July 6, 2011 at 7:50 AM

So we live in the deep South. Wealthy (or in most cases, middle class) people are thin, poor people are obese. Wealthy people have large houses. Poor people have small houses or apartments. Wealthy people have sidewalks in their neighborhood HOA, poor people do not. There’s also no YMCA around, so there’s public pools all over town in the summer but only an expensive private place the rest of the year.

Our house is 3000 sq feet and during the summer we do not go outside except to swim at the HOA pool. DC gets a lot of exercise running all over the open areas inside, thank goodness, and at daycare (where they have regular splash days to run and play outside in the summer). We’ve also started using the Wii Fit Plus.


Sandy L July 6, 2011 at 8:13 PM

Nicole – it’s a little different here. I tend to live in an outdoorsy area, so there isn’t such a drastic line between poor = fat, rich = thin. I’d say our little community is like our neighbor Vermont which is one of the healthier places to live in the US. The poor people may not belong to a fitness center or country club, but they will hunt, fish, hike and camp for fun. If they want cheap protein, they eat venison or wild game jerky instead of the on sale fried tyson chicken from the freezer section. Of course, there are still unhealthy people here too but it’s not like the rest of the country.

Do you notice any kind of variation within the wealthy people?


Nicole July 6, 2011 at 9:41 PM

I don’t know any wealthy people with small houses. We do have one overweight professor who lives, not in the city that’s closest to us (which is still a good 1-2 hour commute), but in a city that is even farther away, so he spends a lot of time in the car.

Averages across the nation, there’s a huge correlation between obesity and poverty. There are a lot of theories as to why, but most of them are focused on food intake (“food deserts” for example) rather than exercise, with the exception of the fact that in some inner cities it’s not necessarily safe to walk outside. There’s also a negative correlation between obesity and public transit.


Sandy L July 7, 2011 at 6:33 AM

Thanks. Yes, I’ve heard that stat, but I was wondering more within a specific income band. Wow…the south is strange. I know quite a few families here in tiny homes that have 2 incomes and can afford much bigger ones. Our home is very small relative to what we could afford, but I also know other dual income families that have 1200 ft places and could afford something 3x that size. Their priority is sports, vacations and activities for their kids. For them, the home is where you sleep, eat and store your sport equipment…that’s about it.


Kellen July 7, 2011 at 1:14 PM

I live in the South, after growing up in Western Mass, and the size of the houses here is really overwhelming. Then again, a girl from Texas was driving with me through a fancy neighborhood in Georgia (we were going to dinner at the Partner’s house, so these are some $1,000,000 homes) and she said “I just love how cute all the little houses are here!” because apparently in Texas they’re even bigger.

I know where I grew up, housing cost a lot more, but you also got a lot more yard space with your house. Here, it seems that people pay $350,000 to get a house that is 2 feet from their neighbor’s house, but has a high square footage.

Nicole July 7, 2011 at 3:31 PM

It’s hot outside!

Niki July 6, 2011 at 8:55 AM

I would have to say that in our neighborhood the wealthy are thin and healthy. We have a very active YMCA in our community. Our town is very small, but we live in the “downtown” area and there are always people walking, even the poorer, larger people. Of course there are always exceptions , but this is usually the norm.

We have a 2100 sq ft house. During the summer we are outside a lot because we have to enjoy the good weather while it lasts. We get 6 month winters around here. When we lived in the south we never went outside in the summer, unless we went to the beach.


Sandy L July 7, 2011 at 6:35 AM

Niki – I love our Y but we only use it for swimming. I love the resurgence of the downtown. Ours gets closed off at least once a month during the summer and thousands go walking there as well. We also have a short summer here. It feels like a crime not being outside when it’s warm.


scantee July 6, 2011 at 1:14 PM

The fittest people I know are those who live in large, urban areas where public transportation is more convenient than driving. Being forced to walk due to the negative externalities associated with driving really does keep people fit.

I live in a mid-sized midwestern city in a residential area of small single family homes. Most of our friends live similarly. Our 1300 ft. house is in a transitional, diverse neighborhood and, yes, people here are outside all the time. One of the nice things about our neighborhood is that the cultural norms are different from the suburbs in that there is less, irrational in my opinion, fear over child safety. Children around here play by themselves outside from a fairly young age and I’ve yet to hear of any child abductions. I say it is nice because the kids are able to get more than enough activity from play rather than from structured sports or exercise which is something I personally value.

When I’m in the suburbs it does seem rare to see people out and about yet I would still say most suburbanites are healthier, although not necessarily thinner. That health mostly likely comes from the availability and ability to pay for healthy foods, access to healthcare, less overall stress, things of that nature.


Sandy L July 6, 2011 at 8:16 PM

Scantee -My big city friends are very fit and have the smallest places too. Your neighborhood sounds very nice. I love the sense of community that smaller homes lend themselves too. My mom’s street has smaller homes and they are much closer together. The neighbors are much friendlier and trick or treating is so much more fun on her street than ours.


Squirrelers July 6, 2011 at 1:20 PM

Really good observations here, Sandy.

I’ve noticed that people living in the city locally (Chicago) tend to be more fit, on average, than folks in the suburbs here. I live in the suburbs, and am not as fit as was living in the city. I’m older now that I was back then of course, but I walked everywhere. It was more convenient to walk, so I just did. Wasn’t fun in the winter, but it’s what you do. Consequently, I was more active and didn’t have to go out of my way to be active, either.

Maybe it’s an urban/suburban thing as well.


Sandy L July 6, 2011 at 8:19 PM

Squirreler – Yes, I think the urban, suburban thing is definitely part of it. The thinnest and fittest I ever was was the year I lived in the UK with no car. The public transport was okay but not great in the town I lived in, so often it was quicker to walk 30-40 minutes than wait for the bus.


retirebyforty July 6, 2011 at 1:33 PM

We live in an urban area and most people in our building are generally in good shape. In fact, I haven’t seen an obese person in our neighborhood lately. Of course we live in the University district and most people are quite young, that makes a huge difference.


Sandy L July 6, 2011 at 8:20 PM

Rb40 – yeah it is easier to be fit when you’re younger for sure. It gets a lot tougher when you have a family and others to take care of too.


Financial Samurai July 7, 2011 at 12:47 AM

1,500 to 2,100 is a pretty big jump indeed! However, a 2,100 square foot house isn’t that big for a family of 3 or 4 imo. Just about right!

I’m not fat yet… but maybe one day! 🙂


Money Reasons July 7, 2011 at 10:39 PM

Hmmm, I think it depends on the individuals. Why you drive past a apartment complex, the number of families in a very tight space increase dramatically and usually they are younger families with plenty of kids.

I do know that my friends that have the 4,000 sq foot house are in model shape (both the husband and wife), but they make fitness a priority. They have access to 2 pools and 2 different fitness places.

I think some of the kids at the larger houses are doing paid sports programs too. I know my kids are never home it seems like, with gymnastics, soccer, basketball, piano, swimming at grandmas, etc… always making demands on them.

Still, I like your thinking process, I never really considered such a theory.


Sandy L July 10, 2011 at 7:52 AM

Money Reasons – did middle class kids do so many organized sports in the 70’s and 80’s? I didn’t think it was as popular back then but it may just be the income level I grew up in. My parents would have never paid for dance lessons for example.


Everyday Tips July 9, 2011 at 12:42 AM

Where I grew up, the average house was probably 800 square feet. People generally didn’t have basements or a second story. I think a main reason people were outside is because it was sweltering inside. So, everyone congregated on the porch and watched the kids play.

Going back to my childhood, it was the rare child that was overweight, and most the parents were probably ‘normal’. There wasn’t a McDonalds on every corner either, I think people barbecued a lot in the backyard and ate at the picnic table. It just seemed so much more simpler. Dad worked, the parents cooked, and the kids played all day and came home for dinner. Now, regardless of who works, it seems like the kids are inside in the A/C watching TV, playing video games, or rotting on Facebook. Part of the problem too may be that parks and rec departments have been forced to cut the budget- I know there aren’t nearly the amount of park programs available now as there were when I was a kid.

My house now is 2700 square feet, and I do weigh more than when we lived in our starter home. But I also hadn’t had my kids yet and I was in my mid 20s, so not sure I can compare. The advent of the computer I think also has made people fatter.

I am sorry you were confined to the Harry Potter cupboard. Living in all that smoke is just awful. Lets hope all our lungs were unaffected by all the second hand smoke.

I loved this post, like all of yours. They are so pleasant to read, and bring up so many memories.


Sandy L July 10, 2011 at 7:50 AM

Everyday Tips – yes, that was what I was trying to evoke from the post but quite a few people interpreted it as being rich makes you fat. Maybe it’s best to think that having reasons to stay indoors does, and a big comfy house is one of them. I’m glad I had my little place under the stairs. It was great.


Crystal July 12, 2011 at 11:06 AM

First, how sad is it that it took me 3 minutes to think of a friend who was in fit, exercise shape? She is actually training to be a personal trainer, lol. But she lives in a house bigger than mine…I guess she just has a heck of a lot of willpower!


Sandy L July 12, 2011 at 7:47 PM

Crystal – okay, my theory is riddled with flaws and too many variables to make it useful but I still enjoyed writing the article.


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