No, Americans Aren’t That Lazy

Science of Us

Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal reported on a new survey with a grim takeaway: Americans are very sedentary. As sedentary as they’ve been, in fact, since 2007. The survey, released Wednesday by the Physical Activity Council, asked a chunk of Americans to indicate which of 104 activities they participate in, ranging from ping-pong to baseball to sledding. Those conducting the survey found, as they explained in the press release, that “82.7 million Americans age 6 and up, or 28.3%, were physically inactive in 2014. This is an increase of 0.7% from 2013 where 80.2 million, or 27.6%, of the population were inactive.”

There’s been no shortage of outlets echoing the claim that almost 83 million Americans don’t get any exercise. But it’s almost certainly an overestimate for two different reasons.

First, “physically inactive” here means that the respondent didn’t participate in any of the 104 activities listed. But there’s lots of stuff that isn’t on there! If you happen to have only one sport that you like to play, and that sport is cricket or handball, for example, you’d be wrongly labeled as “inactive.”

Sports Marketing Surveys, the company that conducted the survey for the Physical Activity Council, does claim to have a method as to what is included on the list of 104 activities. Keith Story, the company’s vice-president, said in an email that “we introduce new sports when they start to get what we think would be over a 0.5 percent participation rate.” So they added stand-up paddling four years ago and pickleball (pickleball?) this year, he wrote. But if we’re going to consider a regular trip to the local bowling lanes, for example, to constitute crossing the line from “inactive” to “active” (no offense to bowlers), why not also add an “other physical activity” category for the nation’s cricketeers and handballers? (You also can’t really compare year-over-year survey results when you’re defining the terms in question differently each time around, which is what’s going on here with the swapping in and out of different activities.)

Story said he doesn’t think there are that many people who play a sport not on the list, but who don’t also participate in an activity that is on there. Well, maybe. But that doesn’t address the survey’s bigger, second flaw: If its goal really was to get an accurate gauge of how many Americans don’t engage in physical activity, it should have included physical activity done at work and during chores at home.

Because even if one sets aside all the waiters and roofers and hotel maids and other workers whose jobs require them to be on their feet lifting and carrying and cleaning for extended periods of time every day, and who are therefore, regardless of their after-work habits, significantly more active than someone who just goes bowling once in a while, there are tons of Americans getting some exercise at home, at least if this Bureau of Labor Statistics chart is any indication:

Is it really fair to say that the average American woman, who spends an hour and a half a day cooking and cleaning and doing laundry, is “physically inactive” because she doesn’t participate in any of the sports listed in this survey? Or, more precisely, is it fair to say that she’s more physically inactive than someone who sits around all day, except for an occasional sledding outing? According to the logic of the survey, yes.

Now, Americans really do have a host of unhealthy habits, and really should get more exercise (though whether it’s exercise rather than diet that sits at the core of the country’s obesity problem is a subject of heated debate), and it would be a bit silly to argue otherwise. But it’s also silly to parrot this 83 million number. The Physical Activity Council, after all, represents the interests of a group of companies in the sports and fitness industry; if anything, these companies benefit from the perception that Americans are even more slothful than they actually are.