Day after day, you promise yourself that you really need to get out and go for a run but somehow you’ve reached the end of another week continuing to promise yourself that “tomorrow is another day.” Perhaps you’re not a morning person, or perhaps you’re too tied up with school drop-off schedules to make that 6 a.m. run part of your day. Instead, you give yourself an ultimatum that you’ll get to the gym in the early evening when you’ve got an hour before dinner. Again, though, you find that your time gets filled with everything other than a workout.
According to a new publication from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention written by RAND Corporation’s Roland Sturm and Deborah Cohen (2019), most Americans remain physically inactive, and most use the excuse of not having enough time in their day to squeeze in some form of exercise. It’s clear that this “excuse” is actually an excuse because, as the authors discovered, most Americans also have about five hours of free time per day, unclaimed by any other demands.
The CDC-RAND findings are based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014-16 administration of the American Time Use Survey (ATUS), a nationwide survey that, as the title implies, determines how people in the U.S. allocate their daily tasks. From the CDC’s point of view, time spent in exercise is valuable because of the importance of physical activity to overall health.
As the authors point out, “Physical activity has multiple health benefits: lower risk and severity of chronic diseases (including heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers), lower mortality rates, and improved mental health and physical well-being” (p. 1). However, only about half of those 15 and older meet the guidelines for aerobic exercise of 150 minutes per week, with this inactivity potentially accounting for 8 percent of the deaths each year in the U.S.
Not surprisingly, as the authors note, “Physical activity requires motivation, but it also requires time” (p. 2). You might think that exercise also requires having the disposable income to spend on gym memberships or equipment, but as the authors go on to observe, there are many neighborhood parks that provide the opportunity for free recreation, and “the degree to which these disparities reflect constraints on free time is not known” (p. 2).
The ATUS method involves one of the best ways to determine free time use, which is to ask people, on a daily basis, what they actually did that day. Other measures of health behaviors ask respondents to estimate how often and for how long they exercise on a weekly basis, leaving the results open to inaccurate memory bias or even wishful thinking.
In the ATUS, time use per day is divided into 17 broad categories that include such obligations as caring for others, shopping, relaxing, eating and drinking, involvement in sports (including exercise), phone calls, traveling, and volunteer activities. The authors divided free time, the key measure in determining whether people actually have time for exercise, into the categories of screen time, physical activity time, travel (for recreation), and “other,” such as socializing or participating in cultural or religious activities. As you read through these categories, do your own mental calculation of how you spent your time yesterday and how you plan to spend it today.
The authors also included measures on their over 32,000 respondents of age, gender, health, body mass index, and income, and also controlled for days of the week on which data were collected. Analyzing the data according to these sample characteristics, men reported having more free time than women and spent 10 minutes longer per day involved in physical activity. Older individuals had more free time than younger adults, and the youngest age groups had the highest level of physical activity.
There were racial/ethnic differences in the amount of free time and physical activity, with black women having the lowest levels of leisure activity spent in exercise. Education played a strong role in determining who spent their day involved in exercise, with those having the highest level of education being most likely to exercise despite having less free time. Individuals with lower levels of education had more free time, but used it in screen time. Similarly, with regard to income, people with higher earnings spent more of their free time in physical activity and less on screen time. Finally, as you might imagine, people with better self-reported health and lower body mass index traded their free time for physical activity, rather than browsing the internet or being involved in social media.
Free time may seem like a relative concept, given that people might have two jobs, be involved in work and family obligations, engage in caregiving, or need to put long hours into activities that are required by school or other nonwork obligations. It might not seem fair to equate individuals from a wide range of demographic groups into the same analyses given the very different socioeconomic pressures each faces.
Thus, it was particularly important that the authors methodically ruled out each possible factor that could detract from an individual’s ability to put the requisite 150 minutes per week into exercise. As Sturm and Cohen stated, “Our definition of free time was intentionally restrictive in that we only considered time to be ‘free’ when activities appear to be entirely discretionary (p. 4). They even excluded minutes spent per day in some activities within an obligatory time category could seem discretionary, such as grooming, shopping, or playing with the kids).
After excluding all of those competitors to time spent in exercise, the final verdict on free time per week averaged out to be 4.5 hours, with no group having any less. This would leave plenty of time, then, to grab those 150 minutes the CDC recommends adults spend in active exercise.
The ATUS didn’t capture the amount of effort participants put into their physical activity, so in that respect fails to address that exact guideline. Furthermore, as you might recognize from your own daily schedule, there are times when you’re doing something else (such as playing outside with kids). The category of “shopping” could mean online browsing, or it could mean running up and down the aisles of a mega-store or across the wide expanse of an indoor shopping mall.
To sum up, the bottom line from the Sturm and Cohen study is that “Lack of free time is not responsible for low levels of leisure-time physical activity at the population level” (p. 5). When you catalog the activities in your day, see if you’re like the average American in the ATUS, and actually could trade your screen time for exercise time. Fulfillment throughout life depends on being healthy enough to enjoy your day-to-day existence. As the Victorian statesman Edward Stanley (1826-1893) stated, “Those who think they have no time for bodily exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness.”
Sturm R, & Cohen D.A. (2019) Free time and physical activity among Americans 15 years or older: Cross-sectional analysis of the American Time Use Survey. Prevention of Chronic Disease, 16,: 190017. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5888/pcd16.190017.