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Majority of Americans Don’t Exercise

Only 5.1 percent of Americans exercise vigorously on any given day, according to a new study published in the October issue of American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The American Time Use Survey (ATUS) was used to determine leisure time activities. ATUS, a nationally representative telephone based survey that is administered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, captures what people do in their spare time and how much time they spend engaging in these activities. Interviewees provide estimates for their personal time over the previous 24 hour period.

The goal of the analysis was to determine the 10 most frequently reported non-work and non-sleep activities by intensity – sedentary, light, moderate and vigorous. Researchers analyzed 2003-2008 data from almost 80,000 respondents, aged 20 or older.

Intensity level was based on METs or Metabolic Equivalents†. Sedentary activities (1.0 to 1.6 METs) included eating & drinking, socializing, and personal calls. Light activities (1.6-3.0 METs) included washing, dressing & grooming oneself and household activities. Moderate activities (3.0-6.0 METs) included food and drink preparation, lawn & garden care, walking and exterior cleaning. Vigorous activities (>6 METs) included running, biking, aerobics, racquet sports, hiking and skiing.

Based on the analysis, most respondents reported performing sedentary and light activities. For those participating in moderate intensity activities, the most popular was food and drink preparation in both men and women.

The most frequently reported activities by intensity category were:

- Sedentary Activity: Eating and drinking (95.6%); television watching (80%)
- Light Activity: Dressing and grooming oneself (78.9%); driving a car, truck or motorcycle (71.4%)
- Moderate Activity: Food and drink preparation (25.7%); lawn, garden & houseplant care (10.6%)
- Vigorous Activity: Using cardiovascular equipment (2.2%); running (1.1%)

On any given day, Americans may engage in higher activity levels because the ATUS does not include data on how Americans spend their time at work. However, other studies indicate that between 78% and 88% of the workforce is employed in sedentary occupations.

†METs is the energy cost of a physical activity and is expressed as a multiple of resting metabolic rate. One MET is equivalent to a typical metabolism at rest for an average person. An activity like running which is 8 METs, burns eight times more calories than at a resting rate. To convert METs to calories, take your weight and divide by 2.2 to obtain weight in kilograms then multiply by the MET rate. For a 130 pound woman, running burns about 472 calories per hour (130 divided by 2.2 = 59 kg x 8 METs).

The Bottom Line

It is sobering that sedentary and light activities dominate people’s time. Unfortunately, these activities don’t burn many calories and when combined with eating and drinking – another popular “moderate activity” - it’s no surprise that the vast majority of Americans are overweight or obese.

If you need to add exercise to your daily routine, start by making small changes. Whether it’s getting up 30 minutes earlier to take a walk or joining the local YWCA, start by doing something you enjoy and will continue doing on a regular basis.

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