Lately the President has been ragged on by critics for taking a vacation. How dare he take a vacation while people are out of jobs, while there is a civil war in Libya, while the stock market is tanking, while it is Thursday? Pretty standard petty politics. George Bush also used to get hated on for spending too much time off at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. At least the criticism comes from both sides. Glad to hear we can be bipartisan about something!
There is a lot of irony with the comparison of our national attitudes about vacations and our record of active physical exercise. Workers in the U.S. lead the world in on-the-job productivity. We take fewer vacation days than workers in most other nations. The chart below shows government rules regarding paid holidays and paid vacations. In almost all the nations included in the chart, workers are guaranteed paid days off; many countries have policies that translate into a full month of vacation as a basic benefit floor. Now notice the U.S. on the far right of the chart. Workers here have no such guarantee. Of course, employers provide paid days off, but only as driven by the labor market. At a time of high unemployment, companies are not pushed to be so generous. For many reasons, we are the hardest workers in the developed world. We are not lazy as a nation!
On the other hand, it appears we lead the world in obesity. It is difficult to make international comparisons of this kind, because there is no common obesity standard; some nations actually measure height and weight in the population while others just gather self-reported survey data. Nevertheless, one international comparison finds that about 34% of Americans over the age of 15 are obese, compared to other nations listed in the chart below:
So what can we conclude? Americans are hard workers, willing to give more to employers than people in most other developed nations, and yet when it comes to putting effort into maintaining their health, they fall short. Just like it is unfair to label the President a slacker for taking a vacation, it is unfair to call Americans unmotivated couch potatoes as a basic character flaw. I think it is the circumstances that are different.
Another study compared what they called "transit trips" taken by walking, biking, or public transportation, looking at data from the U.S. and European nations. Two things were noteworthy about their findings. The first was that transit trips were inversely related to both measured and self-reported obesity: as the percent of trips taken by walking, biking, or public transit, compared to driving, increased, obesity declined. The second finding is that U.S. citizens are dead last for transit trips. Most of our trips are by car.
I think we are health-lazy, not because of character flaws or ignorance but because of public policies that don't support more active lifestyles.