Expert Commentary

Exercise, physical activity and exertion over the business cycle

2011 paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research on the effects of unemployment on peoples’ level of physical activity.

Research has suggested that an increase in unemployment rates tends to bring about a rise in recreational exercise, leaving open the possibility that a period of persistent joblessness may actually have health benefits across the population. But as a paper from scholars at Pace University and Bentley University notes, any such overall assessment of physical activity levels must also take into account the lost physical labor that is normally expended at many jobs.

The scholars’ 2011 paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Exercise, Physical Activity, and Exertion over the Business Cycle,” utilizes data from the American Time Use Surveys (ATUS) of more than 112,000 people over seven years — 2003 to 2010 — to quantify the changes in physical exertion associated with unemployment in this recent recession.

The study’s findings include:

  • On average, individuals ages 25 to 55 spend 26% of their time at work. Moreover, 21% is spent sleeping; 12% doing housework; 8% watching television watching; 6% socializing; and 4% eating and drinking. Exercise on average represents only about 4% of an individual’s daily physical exertion.
  • Among lower‐educated males, work-related physical exertion represents a significantly larger share (33% of daily activities) than for the average person.
  • Since the 2007 economic downturn, the average number of minutes of exercise rose across the board by 3%. Furthermore, the percentage of people exercising for more than 10 minutes per day rose by 0.7%.
  • However, the rise in non-work exercise was “far outweighed” by the decline in the energy previously expended at work. Much of the time no longer spent at work goes into housework, television watching, sleeping and other low‐energy activities.
  • Overall, the “total daily physical exertion has declined by about 21‐24% for the average laid‐off individual” during the U.S. recession beginning in 2007.

The authors conclude, “Due to the concentration of low‐educated workers in boom‐and‐bust industries such as manufacturing and construction, the drop in total physical activity during recessions is especially problematic for vulnerable populations.”

Tags: employment, sports, financial crisis