But the notion that we’re too busy to work out is nonsense, according to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, produced in coordination with researchers at the nonprofit Rand Corp. Americans, in fact, have plenty of free time: an average of five hours of it each day, according to their analysis of the American Time Use Survey, which collects detailed time-use diaries from thousands of people each year.
Instead of exercising, we’re giving over the bulk of our free time to mobile, PC and TV screens, data show.
Average time per day, women
Average time per day, men
18 hours, 42 minutes
18 hours, 4 minutes
2 hours, 55 minutes
3 hours, 31 minutes
2 hours, 9 minutes
2 hours, 1 minute
“There is a general perception among the public and even public health professionals that a lack of leisure time is a major reason that Americans do not get enough physical activity,” Deborah Cohen, a Rand researcher and co-author of the study, said in a statement. “But we found no evidence for those beliefs.”
The American Time Use Survey asks participants — a large, nationally representative sample of Americans 15 and older — to jot down every activity they do over a 24-hour period. For the purposes of this study, Cohen and her colleague considered “leisure time” to be any time spent socializing with friends, watching television, browsing the Internet, participating in sports or other recreational activities, volunteering, praying or going to church, taking classes “for personal interest,” and general resting and relaxation.
Not included was working, caring for family members, cooking, cleaning, going to school for a degree, and self-care (sleeping, eating and grooming).
When you total all that leisure time, you end up with more than five hours a day, on average, for men and women. Just a fraction of that time — 24 minutes for men and 14 for women — is devoted to physical activity.
By contrast, both genders spent about three leisure hours a day in front of television, computer and phone screens.
Further undermining the no-time argument, the researchers found that many groups with lower-than-average free time — such as college graduates and people in the upper two-thirds of the income distribution — spent more time each day exercising.
The average college-educated man, for instance, reports having 90 fewer minutes of daily leisure time than the average man with less than a high school diploma. But the college graduate also spent 10 more of those minutes exercising each day relative to the guy without a GED.
“Substituting at least 20 to 30 minutes [of free time] with physical activity does seem feasible and would not compromise necessary activities like work, household, family, or self-care (time in those activities is already excluded in our definition of free time),” the Rand authors write.
The health benefits of regular exercise are well documented — a lower risk for heart disease, diabetes and other ailments, and improved overall well-being. To that end, according to federal guidelines, the typical adult would need to clock in at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity.
If time’s not a real barrier to exercise, what is? The study doesn’t dig into that question, but other explanations immediately spring to mind. After a full day of work and then several hours of cooking, cleaning and caring for kids, for instance, many working parents may simply not feel that they have the energy to add a workout to their daily schedules. Spending a few hours in front of the TV or computer after the kids go to bed may be the only activity for which they can muster the enthusiasm at the end of a long day.
Then there’s the unavoidable reality that most forms of physical activity cost not just time but also money — gym memberships, sneakers and clothes, a bike or a treadmill for the home. Families with limited financial resources may not be able to afford these amenities.
Lastly, the time-use numbers in this report are population-level averages, which can obscure the wide variety of experiences seen and lived at the individual level. People working multiple jobs to keep a roof over their heads, or putting in punishing hours at one job, are not likely to have anywhere near the average amount of leisure time in a given day. And when time off does come, people in these circumstances are likely to prioritize rest and recuperation.
Still, the data show that many of us have room for exercise in our lives, if only we wanted to use it for that purpose.