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ACS Research Highlights

Exercise & Sitting Time Vary by Race and Birthplace

CPS-3 study describes how moderate-to-vigorous physical activity patterns and sedentary time differ based on participants’ race, ethnicity, and birthplace.

The Challenge

Many adults in the United States do not meet the recommended minimum amount of time being moderately to vigorously physically active.

According to national data, how common inactivity is may differ by race and ethnicity. For instance, survey results have shown that more Latinos (32%) reported not spending any time being moderately to vigorously physically active than Black Americans (30%) and White Americans (23%).

It’s important to understand racial/ethnic differences in physical activity because certain populations develop diseases that are related to physical inactivity more often than others. Specifically, compared with White Americans, more Asian/Pacific Islander (API), Black, Indigenous, and Latino Americans are diagnosed with breast cancer, colon cancer, high blood pressure, and type II diabetes—all of which are related to not being physically active enough.

In the past, research surveys that looked at racial differences in exercise have often only asked one question about physical activity and didn’t ask about the time spent sitting (being sedentary). They also used broad classifications for race, like “Black,” “White,” “Hispanic,” and “Other.”

That’s left gaps in identifying potential distinct differences in physical activity based on race and ethnicity. 

Recommended amounts of exercise

ACS Guidelines for Diet & Physical Activity to Help Prevent Cancer recommend that each week adults be physically active at a:

  • Moderate intensity (MI) for 150 to 300 minutes, while you can chat comfortably but can sing only a few words before running out of breath.
  • Vigorous intensity (VI) for 75 to 150 minutes, while you can say only a few words before having to pause for breath.
  • Combination of equal amounts of MI and VI, with 1 minute of VI equal to 2 minutes of MI. For example: 150 min. MI = 75 min. VI = 100 min. MI + 25 min. VI

Such differences may be better understood if they were studied along with information about the country where a person was born (nativity), current geographic region, and sex.

The Research

Population Science researcher, Erika Rees-Punia, PhD, MPH, used data from the ACS Cancer Prevention Study-3 (CPS-3) to fill some of these research gaps. The CPS-3 cohort includes over 303,000 adults across the US and Puerto Rico who represent diverse races and ethnicities and who have not been diagnosed with cancer. Study participants received 2 separate surveys about specific physical activities in their leisure time.

“Most population studies that examine risk factors for developing cancer, like physical inactivity, only allow participants to select from very broad racial/ethnicity categories, largely ‘Black, white, and other.’ But there’s so much diversity in each of these categories – especially ‘other’ – that needs to be identified and studied.
close up portrait of Erika Rees Punia
“With CPS-3, we allow participants to select from more specific racial/ethnic groups. By doing so, we found some disparities in physical activity related to participants’ race and birthplace. Other scientists can use our results to identify demographic groups for future research to explore group-specific barriers and facilitators of physical activity and to create culturally tailored messaging, programs, and policy work.” — Erika Rees-Punia, PhD, MPH


Rees-Punia and her fellow authors described their results in a published study. They found:

Physical activity by sex and age

  • Men were generally more active than women across all races, ethnic groups, and places of birth.
  • Younger adults were generally more active than older adults across all races, ethnic groups, and places of birth.

Physical activity by race and birthplace

  • Most active group: White participants who were born abroad were the most active of all groups examined.
  • Least active group: Non-White (Black, Indigenous, or mixed) Latinos born abroad were the least active of all groups. Compared to the most active group, their physical activity was equivalent to walking almost 2 fewer hours a week or jogging 1 hour less a week.
  • Least active Latino group: Latino participants born in Puerto Rico were considerably less active than Latinos born in Mexico, the US, or other countries.
  • Asian/Pacific Islanders (API) born in the US or Canada tended to be more active than API participants born abroad. More specifically, participants born in India and China tended to be less active than those born in the US, Canada, or other countries.
  • Black and White participants born abroad tended to be more active than those born in the US or Canada.

TV-watching time by race

  • Watched the most TV: Black participants spent about 3 hours and 30 minutes a day watching TV.
  • Watched the least TV: Asian/Pacific Islander (API) participants spent about 1 hour and 12 minutes a day watching TV.

Why It Matters 

Results of this study can be used  for future research that explores barriers and facilitators of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity during leisure time for specific demographic groups. Such work may identify groups who may benefit from culturally tailored physical activity behavioral interventions.