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No time to exercise? For most Americans, that’s a lame excuse, study finds

reading a tablet
Photo by Daniel Cañibano on Unsplash
Most free time is spent in front of a screen — an average of 3.5 hours daily for men and 2.9 hours for women.

When it comes to establishing a regular exercise routine, most of us have plenty of excuses. And one that often tops the list is “I just don’t have the time.”

Well, we should probably be crossing that excuse off the list. As a recent study reports, most Americans are not too busy to exercise. In fact, the study found we average more than five hours of free time each day.

That’s 35 hours per week — more than enough time to fit in the 2.5 to 5 hours a week of walking, biking, gardening or other moderate-intensity physical activity that health guidelines recommend.

But instead, we tend to spend most of our free time staring at the screen of a television, computer, smartphone or other electronic device, according to the study.


“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,” said Dr. Deborah Cohen, one of the study’s authors and a physician researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization, in a released statement. “But we found no evidence for those beliefs.”

The study was published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease, which is published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Cohen’s co-author is Roland Sturm, a senior economist at RAND.

Study details

For the study, Cohen and Sturm analyzed time-use data collected from more than 32,000 Americans aged 15 and older who participated in the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Time Use Survey from 2014 through 2016.

This survey asks respondents to keep a time-diary of all their activities for a full 24 hours. The answers are coded and categorized into 17 broad categories. Cohen and Sturm used those answers to determine how much free time American have, on average. They included as free time such categories as “socializing, relaxing, and leisure,” “sports, exercise and recreation,” “volunteer activities,” “religious activities,” as well as parts of other categories, such as “traveling” (for leisure), and “taking classes” (for personal interest, but not for a degree or professional license).

The researchers excluded from free time activities such categories as “personal care,” “household activities” (such as cleaning and cooking) and “caring for household members” (such as shopping and playing with children).

They then subdivided free time into four categories: screen time, physical activity, travel related to free time, and “other” free time activities.

Key results

The results were surprising.  Americans in the study averaged more than 300 minutes — or 5 hours — of free time per day.


Interestingly, when the researchers examined the data by different groups — age, race/ethnicity, educational level and income — they found that none of those groups reported less than 4.5 hours of free time per day.

Men, though, reported having about a half hour more of free time each day than women.

Americans use only a small proportion of their free time for physical activities. In the study, men spent an average of 6.6 percent of their free time (about 24 minutes daily) being active and women spent an average of 5 percent (about 14 minutes daily).

Most free time was spent in front of a screen — an average of 3.5 hours daily for men and 2.9 hours for women. And, yes, that gender breakdown meant that although men reported 11 percent more free time than women in the study, they also reported about 20 percent more screen time.

Poverty also tended to influence what people did with their free time. The study found that people whose incomes were at or above 185 percent of federal poverty guidelines (the threshold used to determine eligibility in several government support programs) spent a greater proportion of their free time on physical activity than those with lower incomes — an average of three minutes more per day for women and nine minutes more per day for men.

Limitations and implications

The study relied on a single-day diary of activities. That data-collection method is better than asking people to recall their activities, but it still has limitations.

In addition, when determining the amount of free time spent on physical activity, the study included only activities where physical activity was the primary goal. Activities such as playing with children were not included.

Still, the study’s findings suggest that “I don’t have enough time to exercise” is a rather lame excuse for most Americans.


“Increasing the public’s awareness of how they actually use their time and creating messages that encourage Americans to reduce their screen time may help people to become more physically active,” said Cohen.

“These findings suggest getting Americans to devote at least 20 to 30 minutes each day to physical activity is feasible,” she added.

FMI: You can read the study in full on the CDC’s website.

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