Case study: USA and Leisure

By Matt Burdett, 5 November 2017

On this page, we look at the recent changes in participation in sport and tourism in the United States of America.

Introducing the USA

The USA is the world’s largest economy and has a population of over 320 million. The income per capita has increased fairly consistently for several decades as shown on the graph below (Gapminder, 2017).

People in the USA report high levels of engagement in leisure activities and sports. The graph below shows the average percentage of U.S. population engaged in sports and leisure activities per day from 2010 to 2016 (Statista, 2017). Though the graph appears to fluctuate a lot, overall rates are consistently above 95%.

However, there is a gender gap, with men reporting more engagement in leisure and sports. Although men spend around ten hours more per week in formal work, women spend around more hours than men doing housework, plus looking after children. This supports the ‘woman as homemaker’ paradigm whereby even if women are working, they are more likely to take on responsibilities for housework such as childcare, cleaning and cooking. The result is that American women spend around five hours less per week on leisure activities (Pew Research Centre, 2013).


Participation in physical exercise and sports has remained largely consistent in the USA over recent years. The graph below shows how the level of inactivity (shown in red at the bottom of the scale) has not changed (Physical Activity Council, 2017).

One reason for this may be that although income has gone up in the USA overall, there is still an inequality in the distribution of that wealth. The graph below shows the inactivity levels – i.e. the percentage of people who are NOT exercising (Physical Activity Council, 2017). The wealthier the person, the more likely they are to exercise. However, any increase in activity levels of wealthy people is balanced by a reduction in the activity of those on lower incomes.

A recent phenomena that may be affecting the figures is that of fitness trackers. Despite the expense of the technology, around 12% of people were using fitness trackers in the USA in 2016. The graph below shows that there is an increase in the number of people using fitness tracking actively (i.e. to help them train), suggesting a possible link between wealth and fitness.


Tourism by people from the United States is dominated by domestic tourism. While there has been some recent growth in tourism – and this has been led by international tourism – the figures have remained largely constant. It’s a myth that only 14% of Americans have passports – the number in circulation in 2016 was 131,841,062, according to the US Department of Passports and International Travel (USDPIT, 2017) for a population of around 320 million.

A possible reason for the lack of increase in tourism is the number of days vacation per year. One in four Americans has no paid vacation time at all, while the average is just sixteen days per year (Hess, 2013). This is much lower than in other countries such as in the European Union where every worker is guaranteed no less than four weeks off per year.

A further reason is that it is time-consuming and expensive to travel the long distances required for most Americans to travel out of their country. Whereas in Europe, many people would need to travel for less than a few hours to reach several other countries, the continental scale of the United States makes this proposition harder. Also, there isn’t much need to travel beyond the national border to experience a huge diversity of landscapes and environments.

However, the table below (US Travel Association, 2016) shows that although tourist numbers have only slightly increased, the spending on tourist activities has gone up significantly – by over US$200 billion. This can be explained by the desire of Americans to spend more on the limited free time that they have for tourist activities.


Gapminder, 2017. Income Per Person in USA 1945-2015.

Hess, A., 2013. On holiday: Countries with the most vacation days Accessed 1st November 2017.

Physical Activity Council, 2017. 2017 Participation Report. Accessed 1st November 2017.

Pew Research Centre, 2013. Another Gender Gap: Men Spend More Time in Leisure Activities. Accessed 1st November 2017.

Statista, 2017. Average percentage of U.S. population engaged in sports and leisure activities per day from 2010 to 2016. Accessed 1st November 2017.

Topline, 2017. Outdoor Recreation Participation Topline Report 2017 Accessed 1st November 2017.

USDPIT [US Department of Passports and International Travel], 2017. Valid Passports in Circulation (1989-2016). Accessed 1st November 2017.

US Travel Association, 2016. Travel Volume To And Within The United States. Accessed 1st November 2017

Case study: USA and Leisure: Learning activities


  1. Why might you expect the USA to be increasing its participation in sports and tourism? [2]
  2. Are Americans participating more in sports? Why? [3]
  3. Describe the amount of expenditure on tourism by Americans. [3]
  4. Explain why tourist expenditure is increasing at a faster rate than participation in tourist trips. [4]

Other tasks

  1. Look at the participation in sports. Create a publicity poster to encourage a specific demographic (sex, age, income) to participate more in sports.
  2. Only around a third of Americans have passports. Create a poster for an online travel agency to encourage more people to travel internationally. Ensure that the barriers to travel (distance, cost, duration) are identified and a counterpoint is presented.

© Matthew Burdett, 2018. All rights reserved.

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