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America's laziest state? Louisiana

Image: sport fishing in La.
People fish off a pier July 17 in Grand Isle, La. Sport fishing may be big in Louisiana, but new data indicate that the more popular pastimes are sleeping, goofing off and watching television. Mario Tama / Getty Images file
/ Source: Business Week

In Louisiana, where the humidity is as thick as the gumbo, people prefer to take it slow. Hunting, fishing, and outdoor sporting activity may have earned Louisiana the nickname "Sportsman's Paradise," but new data indicate that the more popular pastimes are sleeping, goofing off, and watching television.

In a new ranking by based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Louisiana claims the top spot as the country's laziest state. To be clear, by "lazy" we do not mean lacking work ethic or engagement. Rather, it is a measure of leisure time spent doing sedentary activities compared with activities that require more physical effort, such as exercising and even working. Mississippi and Arkansas came in second and third, and while states in the south and southeast are represented heavily in the list, such East Coast states as Delaware and New York placed in the top 20.

Some cite the climate, others the lifestyle, infrastructure, or health education in the area. Peter Katzmarzyk, associate executive director at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., notes that Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas are in the Lower Mississippi Delta region, which is "very poor, has poor medical service, and is hot, humid, and has few opportunities for physical activity," he says. Obesity, physical activity, and nutrition — some of the state's biggest issues — are the center's priority research areas.

Sleep, sit, chat, watch's ranking is based on five years (2004-08) of data from the BLS American Time Use Survey, which averages the time spent doing various activities each day across the entire population age 15 and older, including individuals who did not do the activity at all. Using state-level data, we evaluated the average leisure time engaged in sedentary activities: sleeping, watching television, surfing the Internet, playing board games, relaxing, thinking, and socializing, for example. These factors were weighed against other metrics, such as average time spent exercising and playing sports, time spent working, and the state's median age. The survey started only in 2003, so no data exist to show how patterns might have changed over time.

While residents in developed areas such as New Orleans, a compact city with sidewalks, gyms, and outdoor events, have opportunities to be active, Louisianans in the rest of the state spend more time at sedentary activities than the average American. According to BLS data, for example, they sleep an average 8 hours and 44 minutes per day, watch an average 3 hours and 5 minutes of television, socialize for 54 minutes, and relax for 29 minutes. The average time spent working among all Louisianans — 2 hours, 41 minutes — is shorter than in all other states, according to the BLS data.

The average for the U.S. population: 8 hours, 35 minutes sleeping; 2 hours, 38 minutes watching television; 44 minutes socializing; 18 minutes relaxing; and 3 hours, 23 minutes working. Looked at another way, Louisianans over the course of a year spend on average 3,285 more minutes sleeping and 9,855 more minutes watching television than the national average.

In North Dakota, the least inactive state, people sleep 8 hours, 4 minutes; watch 2 hours, 19 minutes of television; socialize for 40 minutes; and relax for 22 minutes. The average time North Dakotans spend working is just over 5 hours.

Torpid lifestyles
Averaged across Louisiana's population, time spent exercising and playing sports is about 17 minutes per day, on a par with the national level, although data from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention show nearly 30 percent of Louisianans do not get any exercise.

Sedentary leisure time was slightly higher in Mississippi than Louisiana, but when age, exercise, and time spent working were factored in, Louisiana came out on top. It's important to note that the data were compiled prior to the recent BP oil spill, which has had an adverse impact on the Louisiana job market.

It also factored in a spike in employment that came from the rebuilding efforts following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

This sedentary lifestyle — combined with the effects of Louisiana's famous cuisine — has its consequences. The lack of physical activity "correlates with our obesity rates," says Christy Reeves, director of community relations at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana. The obesity rate in Louisiana is 31.2 percent, the fifth-highest rate in the country, according to a recent report by Trust for America's Health. In 2009, the state ranked eighth with an obesity rate of 28.9 percent. Louisiana spends about $1.4 billion dollars annually on obesity-attributed medical expenses, reports the state Office of Public Health. "I think in general people here recognize it's an issue," says Reeves.

Television and obesity
Louisiana is not unique: Americans spend more time sitting around than ever, and the number of overweight and obese people continues to rise. Even in the state with the lowest obesity rate, Colorado, nearly one in every five to six people is obese.

One major contributor is television. According to a recent report by Nielsen, Americans now spend more time in front of TVs than ever, with the average viewer watching two more hours of TV per month in the first quarter this year than in the same period in 2009. On a weekly basis, the typical American watches more than 35 hours of TV and spends nearly four hours on the Internet. People over age 65 watched the most television (about 49 hours weekly), and those aged 35 to 49 spend the most time online (nearly six and one-half hours per week), according to Nielsen data.

Growing offerings for online video and mobile video also contribute to this trend. For example, Nielsen says events such as the Super Bowl and March Madness drive online viewership. Nielsen reports the mobile video audience grew 51.2 percent year-on-year in the first quarter.

Promoting bicycling
The challenges to getting people up and moving are complex. Outside the big cities is a dearth of public transportation, bike paths, and sidewalks, says Berry Trascher, Louisiana advocacy director of the American Heart Assn., "and there are so many poor and underserved and undereducated people who don't understand how to eat healthy." On top of that, she says, "everything is centered around food in Louisiana." Trascher, a lobbyist, and others hope to change this.

Adding physical activity positively affects physical health, as well as mental health, emotional well-being, and social functioning, according to a study of sedentary women by Pennington Biomedical Research Center.

One outlier is Mark Martin, a Baton Rouge resident, who has built a lifestyle around his bicycle. Despite the heat and people's odd reactions, he says, he has not owned a car for about 20 years. "Originally it was economics: I had just gotten out of grad school and couldn't afford [a car]," says the 56-year-old photo archivist at Louisiana State University. "I started riding more and realized how much fun it is, and the health benefits are certainly there."

Martin is working to make the city more accessible to bikers and walkers through a nonprofit, Baton Rouge Advocates for Safe Streets, which he started in 2006. The group organizes rides and advocates policies that ensure the right of way for nonmotorists. "People can't use things that aren't there," he says. "You can't walk and bike if there is no built environment for that."

Awareness programs are also growing. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana started a free, online fitness program in 2007 called Louisiana 2 Step, which allows users to track (and hopefully change) what they eat and how much they exercise. Says Reeves: "We have a lot of outreach in schools and churches."

Still, widespread lifestyle changes take time and require alterations not only in mindset but also available services and facilities. "In the medical community, we are well aware of the situation," says Pennington's Katzmarzyk, but "there is a lag time between what we understand in science and what we put in place in the population."