It’s one of the most commonly heard fitness refrains: Sure, we’d exercise more regularly if we just had the time. But, darn the luck, we’re just too busy.
Well, your luck just changed. And if that’s the excuse you use for skipping workouts, your excuse needs to change, too. It turns out that most of us do have time to exercise — we just choose not to use the time for that.
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 few of us use even a portion of that free time for physical activity, raising questions about what really keeps us from exercising and how we might better shape our days to get ourselves moving.
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 and other obligations gobble up the hours.
While those commitments are real, experts have started wondering if there are other time drains that we’re either underestimating or not even aware of, like surfing social media, playing computer games and watching TV.
So, for the new study, published recently in Preventing Chronic Disease: Public Health Research, Practice, and Policy, researchers from the Rand Corp. in California decided to look more closely at what we do with our days and, in particular, how we spend our free time.
They began by turning to a large database of information gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau, 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 researchers analyzed responses from more than 32,000 of the survey participants from 2014 to 2016 to see how much time was spent on leisure actitivies.
“We defined leisure time as involving activities that were not in some way required or compulsory,” said Dr. Deborah Cohen, a physician who oversaw the study.
Time devoted to work, commuting, education, sleeping, cleaning, caring for children, home-related chores, cooking, food shopping, showering or dressing was not free time. The researchers then figured out how much time was left in the average person’s day. And they found plenty of it.
Almost all of the respondents — whatever their income, age, gender 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 African-American women the least of all. But no group reported less than about 4½ hours a day.
Few of the people used this time for exercising. But the data pointed to 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 [evening] programming.”
So, getting more people moving will require both individual and social initiatives, she said.
“We need to make it easier” for people to devote some portion of their free time to physical activity, Cohen said.
Nonetheless, the overarching lesson of the study, she said, is that many of us have enough time to exercise, even if we’ve convinced ourselves otherwise.