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story.lead_photo.caption Couch potato tries to exercise. (Democrat-Gazette photo illustration/Celia Storey)

If, like many of us, your New Year's resolution was to find time to exercise, you could be in luck. According to a recent study of how Americans typically spend their waking hours, almost all of us have far more leisure time available than we think we do.

But the study shows that few people use even a portion of that free time for physical activity.

At the moment, about two-thirds of Americans do not meet the standard exercise guidelines of about 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise, such as walking. In past studies of exercise behavior, when researchers have asked people why they rarely work out, the almost-invariable response has been that time is too tight. Work, family, school, travel and other obligations seem to gobble up the hours, they said, leaving them feeling unable to sneak in a daily walk or a workout.

But whether we are actually too busy has not been clear. Other research has teased the idea that people underestimate how many hours we spend each day seated in a chair or how much time we devote to watching television.

So, for the new study, which was published recently in Preventing Chronic Disease: Public Health Research, Practice, and Policy, researchers from the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif., decided to look more closely at what Americans do with our days and, in particular, how we spend our free time.

They began by turning to a large database gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau. Since January 2003, the bureau has conducted a telephone survey of Americans' lifestyles, called the American Time Use Survey. For this survey, tens of thousands of men and women age 15 or older were asked about their days and how they spent their time, almost minute by minute, during the preceding 24 hours. The participants represent a range of ages, socioeconomic demographics and ethnicities.

RAND researchers then gathered responses from more than 32,000 of the survey participants from 2014 to 2016 and compared their days, looking at how much of their time was their own.

"We defined leisure time as involving activities that were not in some way required or compulsory," said Dr. Deborah Cohen, a physician and senior scientist at the RAND Corp. who oversaw the new study.

Time devoted to work, commuting, education, sleeping, cleaning, caring for children or other household members, cooking, food shopping, showering or dressing was not free time. But minutes or hours spent exercising, socializing, relaxing, playing, watching television, volunteering, taking classes for fun, chatting with friends, traveling for pleasure or otherwise not working constituted leisure time.

The researchers then calculated the average free time of the 32,000 men and women.

They found plenty. Almost all of the respondents — whatever their income, age, sex or ethnicity — reported about five hours a day of leisure time. Men tended to have more than women, older people more than the young and black women the least of all. But no group reported less than about 4 ½ hours a day of free time.

For almost everyone, physical activity was uncommon during those hours. Most spent the overwhelming majority of their free time watching TV or in front of a phone or a computer.


These findings might suggest that, if we adjusted our schedules and turned off the TV, phone or computer, most of us would have plenty of time to work out.

But the data also underscore other lingering barriers to exercise, Cohen said.

"For many people, especially women, almost all of their free time is clustered in the evening, after a day of work and chores and caring for children," she said. "They may be tired. They have no child care. There is no gym nearby, or it's expensive and the parks and recreational centers are closed or do not have programming," such as evening exercise classes or sports leagues.


Of course, this study was based on people's recollections of how they spent their time, which can be inaccurate. But, in general, people overestimate rather than underreport their exercise (and they reported very little exercise).

Style on 02/10/2020

Print Headline: Do you have more time than you think for exercise?

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