A short history of time use research; implications for public health

BMC Public Health. 2019 Jun 3;19(Suppl 2):607. doi: 10.1186/s12889-019-6760-y.


Background: This section defined time use (TU) research, illustrating its relevance for public health. TUR in the health context is the study of health-enhancing and health-compromising behaviours that are assessed across a 24 h day. The central measurement is the use of Time Use Diaries, which capture 24-48 h, typically asking about behaviour in each 15-min period. TUR is used for understanding correlates of health behaviours, and as a form of population surveillance, assessing behavioural trends over time.

Main body: This paper is a narrative review examining the history of time use research, and the potential uses of TU data for public health research. The history of TUR started in studies of the labour force and patterns of work in the late 19th and early twentieth century, but has more recently been applied to examining health issues. Initial studies had a more economic purpose but over recent decades, TU data have been used to describe the distribution and correlates of health-enhancing patterns of human time use. These studies require large multi-country population data sets, such as the harmonised Multinational Time Use Study hosted at the University of Oxford. TU data are used in physical activity research, as they provide information across the 24-h day, that can be examined as time spent sleeping, sitting/standing/light activity, and time spent in moderate-vigorous activities. TU data are also used for sleep research, examining eating and dietary patterns, exploring geographic distributions in time use behaviours, examining mental health and subjective wellbeing, and examining these data over time. The key methodological challenge has been the development of harmonised methods, so population TU data sets can be compared within and between-countries and over time.

Conclusions: TUR provides new methods for examining public health research questions where a temporal dimension is important. These time use surveys have provided unique data over decades and in many countries that can be compared. They can be used for examining the effects of some large public health interventions or policies within and between countries.

Keywords: History; Physical activity; Public health; Time use.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Actigraphy / history*
  • Exercise / psychology
  • Female
  • Health Behavior
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Health
  • Population Surveillance / methods*
  • Public Health / methods*
  • Sleep
  • Time Factors
  • Time and Motion Studies*