Guess what? We don’t exercise as much as we think

When it comes to time, the way we think we spend our minutes often bears little resemblance to how we actually spend them. We work less than we think. We sleep more than we think. We spend a lot less time doing the dishes than we claim on surveys.

It turns out this curious facet of human nature extends to exercise. I’d come across a study years ago tracking the number of times people claimed to go to the gym with their actual check in logs at the front desk. Even though people knew their access was recorded, they still claimed to go to the gym much more frequently than they did.

Now a new study out of Norway (reported in the January issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise) likewise compared people’s estimated activity with actual movement. Roughly 1700 men and women were given questionnaires, and also accelerometers, which are activity monitors that people wear on their wrists.

Comparing the survey answers with the actual monitored activity, it turns out that people overestimate moderate physical activity (e.g. walking) by close to an hour (per day, it seems, though it’s hard to tell from the Wall Street Journal write-up I found this in). They didn’t claim much “vigorous” physical activity (20 minutes for men, 12 minutes for women), but they were still way off. The actual vigorous activity (again, I think per day) was 2.9 minutes for men and 2.4 minutes for women. People also underestimated their sedentary time by about 2 hours.

Well, so what? People lie. Breaking news! I think it’s interesting because the CDC does various surveys to see if Americans are getting the amount of physical exercise they should. The aerobic component (2.5 hours a week, or about 30 minutes per day) always does pretty well. About half of Americans supposedly get that. But this is self-reported, and if Americans are like Norwegians, we may be overestimating even moderate activity. We think we’re the kind of people who walk around, even if most of those steps involved walking to the car in the garage, and from the couch to the fridge.

I personally am not doing so well on activity at the moment. How about you? How much movement do you get in a good week — and in a not-so-good week?



6 Responses to Guess what? We don’t exercise as much as we think


  1. oldmdgirl says:

    I don’t know that I’d call it “lying” so much as “wishful thinking.” Personally, I’m trying to do better at this, but I think things will really improve when I start back in the hospital in a few weeks.

    I am so mad about the weather today! It makes it much harder to go outside to exercise when there is freezing rain. :-(

  2. Ana says:

    Yeah, with being sick and the weather being what it is…the past couple of weeks have been a real bust in terms of activity. I just my pedometer and I’m going to start tracking my steps (and striving towards a goal) Monday.

  3. Katherine says:

    This reminds of when I kept a time log and discovered the one of my top three most dreaded activities of the week- preschool pickup- actually only took me 45 minutes per week from start to finish. I had dramatically overestimated that amount because of how much I disliked that task.

    Regarding physical activity- on a bad week I’ll log a big fat zero. Lately it’s been maybe…2 hours a week? (Now that I say that, I’d be curious what it actually is…).

  4. Whitney says:

    I decided to do a running streak for the 34 days leading up to my 34th birthday on January 31. I invited my friends to join me, and I committed to running at least a mile a day. While one mile isn’t much, I’ve been amazed at how much fun I’m having by making sure I don’t miss a day. I don’t want to let anyone down who committed to the goal with me. I’m blogging my progress, so it’s got me back into the routine of writing each day, too.

    So far, the streak has opened my eyes to all that I could explore with running and writing. If I keep the streak going, I could experiment with hill repeats, speedwork, etc., in addition to the long runs I try to do on the weekends. And if it doesn’t take much to blog about my fitness progress, how much more work would it take to scribble some fiction here or there? I’m betting there’s some time in those 168 hours I’ve got!

  5. Leanne says:

    I aim for- and almost always get- at least 180 minutes a week, and I keep track of it on a whiteboard in my office, so I know I’m not lying! This forces me to exercise most days of the week, with one or two longer workouts, and the others 30 minutes or so. It’s not a huge amount, but it’s slightly challenging without being overwhelming. Whenever I don’t feel like working out, I remind myself that 3 hours out of 168 is not a lot to commit to my health and well-being, and that always gets me off the couch. So thanks for that mindset, Laura!

  6. I can relate to this…I say I go to the gym 3 days a week, but if I actually look it’s not always that! Many weeks I intend to go 3 times but only actually go once. I’m trying to really and truly go three times as a New Year’s resolution, though!

    Similarly, I have a Fitbit that tracks my steps. It’s recommended that we get 10,000 steps a day and even on the days I feel like I walk a lot I don’t always hit that. 10,000 is a lot of steps!