Can your birth order determine your attitude to fitness?

Does the order you are born in play a part in how you approach fitness, and can it impact your health in later life? Here’s what the experts say.

The idea that our personalities are formed partly by where we come in the family order is not new.

But it turns out our birth order may also influence how and when we exercise, the sports we choose, and whether or not we adopt unhealthy habits.

“Our personality is largely defined by genetics but there are a whole bunch of things, including the environment you grow up in, that influence who you are – and where you’re born in the family is a primary source of environmental influence,” parenting educator and writer Michael Grose says.

Brigham Young University School of Family Life Associate Professor Alexander Jensen agrees that birth order will have an impact but says the effect it has is not always straightforward.

“Can birth order influence people’s approach to wellbeing? Yes, but it may depend on many factors, including what an older or younger sibling is like,” Assoc Prof Jensen says.

“Imagine a second-born in a family where the first-born is more emotionally volatile – that child will have a different context than a second-born in a family where the first-born is more naturally kind and gentle.

“In both cases, birth order shaped their context, but only in light of what the first-born is like.”

Michael, who wrote Why First-borns Rule the World and Later-borns Want to Change It, agrees that birth order “is not a standalone theory”, but there are still some commonalities for many people.

So how does your birth order play out when it comes to your health and fitness?

Birth order and approach to health and fitness

The first-born child

Known as the high achievers, first-borns are most likely to approach health and fitness with purpose, Michael says.

“Expectations are extremely high for the first child, and 100 per cent of the parental resources are focused on them,” he explains.

“This means they take on more responsibility; they tend to be more hard-driven and perfectionist.”

But, Michael says, this doesn’t mean all first-borns are going to get completely into health and fitness – rather, if exercise is important to the family, it’s something they’ll likely focus on.

He says first-borns are also the group most likely to make fitness competitive.

“They don’t just do the fun run, they want to do their best time possible,” Michael says, adding that children born first are also more likely to follow the public health dietary and exercise guidelines “as they tend to be rule followers”.

However, there is a downside – first children tend to perform worse under stress; and some research suggests they have slightly higher blood pressure and are more sensitive to insulin, which could put them at greater risk of heart disease and diabetes later in life.

The second-born child

Second-borns are no less driven than first-borns, but they are more likely to take a social approach to exercise, Michael says.

“Seconds are more likely to do exercise or fitness in a group, or play a team sport,” he explains.

“They tend to be a bit more laid-back when it comes to rules and will not follow them adamantly like a first-born.

“Instead, they’ll probably adapt the guidelines to suit their lifestyle or goals, rather than doing exactly what they are told – there’s a bit of a rebellious spirit in them.”

The third, fourth (and beyond) sibling

According to Michael, the main characteristic of a person born later into a larger, more established family is that they take more risks.

“The youngest ones are allowed to make mistakes in life, so they are much more willing to take chances,” Michael explains.

He says later-borns may be more inclined to take up risky sports and activities, such as surfing and skydiving, but they’re also more likely to take a relaxed approach with their health.

Birth order and health and fitness according to science

Research adds weight to the theory that birth order impacts health and fitness, with different adult health outcomes being statistically noticeable depending on where a person comes in the sibling rankings.

One study found the probability of having high blood pressure declined with birth order.

It revealed second-borns were about three per cent less likely to have high blood pressure than first-borns.

Interestingly, it also found that first-borns were more likely to be overweight.
Other research showed last-born children were more likely to take up unhealthy behaviours such as smoking or drinking.

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