Are you man—or Olympian?

How average Joes and Janes compare to world's best athletes

Dan Diamond, Managing Editor

The Olympic motto is "Citius, Altius, Fortius," which essentially translates to "swifter, higher, stronger."

But based on how Americans measure up, our national motto might be a bit more modest: Shorter, fatter, slower. 

Olympians are a cut above

It's no surprise that the typical U.S. Olympian is more fit and faster around a track than the average U.S. resident. But four inches taller, too? 

That was one of the findings uncovered by our Daily Briefing team after comparing data on the world's top athletes, including this year's national Olympic team, against other health and fitness benchmarks.

Click to expand the graphic or download a PDF version.

In many cases, we had to rely on ancedotal figures; there's no study of Olympians' average pulse rate, for example. But in every data set we pulled or modeled, it became more and more clear that Olympians are made of sterner stuff: Leaner, stronger, and with top-of-the-charts biometrics.

If every hospital ward had a medal stand...

Of course, that wasn't a shocking development. Relatively young, world-class athletes are going to have world-class vitals.

So we next wondered about those folks closer to home—the doctors and nurses who provide advice and guidance to our nation's patients. They may not be Olympians, but do they at least put the "health" in health care?

And often, the answer's no. Although physicians might beat nurses on basic self-care measures, they should check any medals for fool's gold. Doctors report high levels of stress and substance abuse, and while "only half of physicians are overweight or obese, compared to two-thirds of the general population, [that's] probably not an achievement," according to Sara Bleich of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Bleich notes that physicians don't perfectly reflect the broader population, given their higher incomes and lower minority representation; comparing them against non-physicians with similar demographic characteristics might show that doctors' obesity is actually in line with representative averages.

Meanwhile, nurses have their own set of well-documented health challenges, including a significant risk of depression and a tendency to work through pain. About 55% of nurses also have been found to be overweight or obese, and that may stem from shift work, which has been linked to a greater risk of gaining weight than being a day worker. Many nurses complain they don't have time for better eating habits or regular exercise, either.

Sicker population needs healthier caregivers

Relying on heavier providers introduces a set of...well, weighty issues for hospital employers. Bleich recently authored a study that found overweight physicians were less likely to broach weight-loss issues with their obese patients. Nurses who are heftier may suffer a greater risk of injury on the job.

And this comes even as the broader patient population gets less and less healthy, notes the Advisory Board's John Workman.

"More and more employers are investing in wellness resources for their employees," Workman says. "But hospital employers have additional opportunities that few other industries have. They can direct staff to their own doctors, to their own pharmacists, to their own health facilities."

Sure, a regular wellness visit—or even a health coach—may not get the average physician, nurse, or other staffer into Olympic-level condition, let alone make them any swifter or stronger. But it's a positive step toward adopting a better motto, at least for our industry: Health care workers, heal thyselves.

Chart appendix

All sources for "Are you man—or Olympian" are listed below. Findings also include Advisory Board interviews and analysis by our own relay team—project director Rich Van Haste, writer Neeraj Hotchandani, designers Stacy McReynolds and Wilson Fujinaga, and managing editor Dan Diamond.





Note: Average speeds determined for 100 meter sprint by male and female individuals, 25 years of age, in the 50th percentile.


Average Nurse

Average Physician

Average Patient

Next in the Daily Briefing

Beyond the Olympics: Do winners also star at delivering care?

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