Commentary: The Lie That Americans Tell Themselves About Exercise

by Ross Pomeroy


When asked in polls why they don’t exercise, roughly half of Americans invariably state that they are “too busy” or “don’t have the time“. Whether witting or unwitting, this is a lie.

How do we know that this is a lie? Because Americans have said so. According to the 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey, the average American reported having 5.5 hours of leisure time per day. When researchers with the RAND Corporation further scrutinized the survey, breaking the data down based on age and race, they found that no group reported fewer than 4.5 hours of daily free time.

So Americans have plenty of time to work out, we just choose not to. Instead, we elect to spend 64% of our leisure time – roughly three and a half hours each day – watching television.

This choice has consequences. If Americans spent a measly 150 minutes a week moderately exercising, significantly less than the average amount of time we spend watching TV in a single day, it’s estimated that we would each add about six years to our lifespans! That’s a lot more time for watching TV!

A strange paradox with Americans’ collective refusal to exercise is that we avow to want to exercise a lot more. In fact, four out of five of us say we feel “generally happier” when we stick to a regular exercise routine. So we want to work out, and working out makes us happy, yet we don’t work out…

So what. Do we lack free will? Of course not. Recognizing this perceived powerlessness as nonsense is the first step towards regaining control of our lives, writes Purdue University-Fort Wayne behavioral scientist Michelle Drouin.

“We have a choice on how to spend our 5.5 hours of leisure each day,” she wrote in her book Out of Touch: How to Survive an Intimacy Famine. “Don’t deceive yourself into thinking you’re being sucked into your technologies. Instead, see your tech use for what it is: you knowing what you like, and you choosing to engage in it (at the cost of other opportunities).”

When you regain that sense of agency, you’re more likely to be able to change your behavior, if that’s really what you want, of course. Then comes the hard part: actually turning exercise into a habit. It all comes down to repetition. The more we repeat an activity, they more it’s likely to become part of our routine. It’s a process that take roughly 66 days on average.

Starting a new exercise habit can be difficult, but the cost-saving, life-extending, wellbeing-enhancing benefits are real. It just takes time and effort to realize them. And though Americans like to say otherwise, time is something that they have.

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Ross Pomeroy is a reporter for RealClearScience. 




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