Americans as a rule don’t get enough exercise - less than 1 in 4 do, data show - and many contend their schedules are simply too packed to fit it in. The explanation is so prevalent that such medical and public health institutions as the Mayo Clinic and American Heart Association address the “no time for exercise” hurdle in their outreach campaigns.
But the notion that we're too busy to work out is nonsense, according to a new study from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and conducted by 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.
"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 age 15 and older - to keep detailed diaries of 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 any time spent generally resting and relaxing.
Everything else we do - sleeping, working, caring for family members, cooking and cleaning, going to school (toward a degree), and self-care (sleeping, eating and grooming) - was not considered leisure time.
When you add all that leisure time, you end up with more than five hours a day, on average, for both men and women. Just a fraction of that time - an average of 24 minutes for men, or 14 minutes for women - is devoted to physical activity.
By contrast, men and women both spent about three leisure hours a day in front of TV, 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 adult man, for instance, reports having about 90 fewer minutes of daily leisure time than the average man with less than a high school diploma. But the college graduate also reports spending 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. Per federal guidelines, that means an adult should 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 does not 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 like 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 they can muster the enthusiasm for at the end of a long day.
Then there's the inevitable reality that most forms of physical activity cost not just time but also money - gym memberships, running shoes and clothes, a bike or a treadmill for the home. Families without much in the way of financial resources may not be able to afford these amenities.
Lastly, the time-use numbers in this report are population-level averages. Those averages 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, the first priority for people in these circumstances is likely to be rest and recuperation.
The Rand data do suggest, however, that many of us have plenty of time to add a workout routine to our schedules, if only we wanted to.