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Physical Activity During the Recession: More Voluntary Exercise, Less Exertion


Last month, we wrote about data pulled from the American Time Use Survey (ATUS), examining how Americans spend their lost work hours during the recession. While 32% of foregone work hours were spent watching TV and sleeping (not great, though sleeping is helpful), 15% of that time went to “other leisure,” among which, there is “listening to music” and “being on the computer,” as well as “exercise and recreation.”
Two new studies (both coauthored by Dhaval M. Dave of Bentley University) drill further into that ATUS data to paint a more complete picture of our exercise and physical activity habits, and ultimately, what impact they have on our health. The first finds that during the recession, we engage in more voluntary exercise, but have less exertion. Part of this has to do with the difference between exercise and physical activity — the latter is seen as the healthier of the two. (Better to walk to work everyday than do sit-ups twice a week.) With the loss of work, comes a loss of physical activity — particularly with the types of jobs we’ve lost.
From the abstract:

Using within-state variation in employment and unemployment, we find that recreational exercise tends to increase as employment decreases. In addition, we also find that individuals substitute into television watching, sleeping, childcare, and housework. However, this increase in exercise as well as other activities does not compensate for the decrease in work-related exertion due to job-loss. Thus total physical exertion, which prior studies have not analyzed, declines. These behavioral effects are strongest among low-educated males, which is validating given that the Great Recession led to some of the largest layoffs within the manufacturing, mining, and construction sectors. Due to the concentration of low-educated workers in boom-and-bust industries, the drop in total physical activity during recessions is especially problematic for vulnerable populations and may play a role in exacerbating the SES-health gradient during recessions. We also find some evidence of intra-household spillover effects, wherein individuals respond to shifts in spousal employment conditional on their own labor supply.

For a demographic breakdown of unemployment go here.
Which leads to the second study, an examination of racial, ethnic and gender differences in physical activity. It also seeks to understand the persistent health gap between racial and ethnic groups. Even when controlling for factors such as income, education, smoking and drinking, and access to medical care, “the association between race/ethnicity and health persists even within similar income categories and among insured individuals.”
From the abstract:

Prior studies have shown that non-work physical activity has a positive impact on health while work physical activity has a negative impact on health. Many prior studies have relied primarily on leisure-time physical activity, which typically constitutes only about 10% of non-work physical activity and does not capture specific information on the intensity or duration of the activity. This study addresses these limitations by constructing measures of physical activity from the American Time Use Surveys, which are all-inclusive and capture the duration of each activity combined with its intensity based on the Metabolic Equivalent of Task (MET). Non-work physical activity tends to be significantly lower for Blacks, Hispanics, other racial groups than for Whites and lower for males than for females. These adjusted differentials are consistent with racial, ethnic and gender differentials in health. About 25-46% of the differentials in non-work physical activity can be attributed to differences in education, socio-economic status, proxies for time constraints, and locational attributes.

So while non-work physical activity is associated with improved general health, work physical activity has a negative effect. This leads to a strange dilemma for African-Americans and Hispanics, who tend to be more likely to engage in physically demanding jobs, and for whom unemployment rates are 16.7% and 11.3% respectively. Work physical activity is normally found to lower non-work physical activity. The more active you are at work, the less you are when you’re not. So in a recession, when physically demanding work goes away, it is not necessarily replaced by the healthier kind of non-work activity.
This behavior has health repercussions. The ATUS data show that overall non-work physical activity is lower among Blacks and Hispanics. Which is troubling since it is shown to be a protective factor against all kinds of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, colon and breast cancer, obesity, hypertension, bone and joint diseases, and depression.