Too many people in the US are physically inactive, contributing to chronic illness, inflated healthcare costs and premature death. To address this national health crisis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed the national initiative, Active People, Healthy NationsSM. The goal is to make 27 million Americans more physically active by 2027. Now is the time to prioritize that goal. COVID-related lockdowns led to an unfortunate drop in habitual physical activity and worsened trends that existed before the pandemic.
Increased habitual and purposeful physical activity improves health and quality of life and reduces healthcare costs. Recent statistics from the CDC are alarming: only about 1 in 4 adults and 1 in 6 high school students fully meet physical activity guidelines for aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities. Additionally, about 31 million adults over age 50 are completely inactive — meaning they don’t get any physical activity beyond daily living. Numerous other studies continue to show that Americans are sedentary (eg, spending too much time sitting). Low physical activity and obesity even affect the operational readiness of our military. In fact, almost one in four adults is too heavy to serve in the military. Outside of the military, physical inactivity and obesity are often the toxic precursors to type 2 diabetes in the general population.
The laudable goals of Active People, Healthy NationsSM are:
- Shift 15 million adults who aren’t currently doing aerobic activity to a daily, moderate-intensity activity, such as exercise. B. brisk walking,
- Encourage 10 million physically active adults to meet minimum aerobic physical activity guidelines and
- Get 2 million children transitioning from physical activity to meeting minimum aerobic physical activity guidelines.
The CDC will monitor these physical activity levels through the Youth Risk Behavior Survey and the National Health Interview Survey.
Physical inactivity is an individual problem and a community problem. The societal cost of our collective inactivity is staggering – it has been estimated that insufficient physical activity is associated with $117 billion in annual health care costs. Moving the needle requires the implementation of multiple strategies. For example, many communities need better walking and cycling routes, and school programs should encourage daily physical activity and exercise. Healthcare providers, from pediatricians to geriatricians, including nurses and physical therapists, should emphasize the critical importance of physical activity for their patients—at every visit. Referrals to qualified fitness/exercise professionals and physical activity resources should be commonplace. And Congress should pass the Personal Health Investment Act of 2021 (S.844, the “PHIT” Act), which would allow the use of flex spending and health savings accounts for health club memberships and home fitness equipment, making it financially easier to focus on engage in healthy behaviors.
While almost everyone already understands the importance of regular exercise and physical activity to improve health, fewer appreciate that even a single exercise session has been shown to improve sleep, reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms, and lower blood pressure. These benefits increase over time. Almost daily exercise has a positive effect on the heart and blood vessels, the brain and bones, reduces the risk of falls and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. And every step counts – even a small increase in physical activity and a decrease in sedentary time result in improved health. These additional steps will bring us closer to the goals set by the CDC.
Active People, Healthy NationsSM goals are ambitious but doable. Community-focused efforts to improve health and well-being by increasing physical activity should be undertaken with the same urgency as previous smoking reduction campaigns. This urgency is required when considering the myriad adverse consequences of physical inactivity.
Time will tell if these efforts are successful, but we must act now to achieve the 2027 goals.
Bill Farquhar is a professor and associate dean at the University of Delaware College of Health Sciences and vice president of the American College of Sports Medicine. Lynette Craft is the former Chief Science Officer of the American College of Sports Medicine.
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