A Step in Time Saves Nine

November 14, 2018 Daniel Kotzen

Latest physical activity guidelines for Americans released.

Leading exercise epidemiologist Jeremy Morris described physical activity as “the best buy in public health.” This is in keeping with the recently released Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans and our own views as well. Outlined in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)’s special communication, the new guidelines make significant strides over those published in 2008. And it confirms that physical activity has benefits that extend beyond the prevention of chronic disease, and even to those who make small but consistent activity improvements will benefit.

Given that almost 80 perfect of U.S. adults are insufficiently active, these guidelines are critical in informing the comprehensive and collaborative efforts required across sectors to help people make healthier choices. While separate guidelines for children and older adults may be found in PAG, the recommendations for adults are well-captured in the JAMA special communication, encompassing:

  • Some is better than none: Adults should move more and sit less and some physical activity is better than none. Adults who sit less and do any amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity gain some health benefits.
  • Increase the amount and intensity: For substantial health benefits, adults should do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) to 300 minutes (5 hours) a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) to 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Preferably, aerobic activity should be spread throughout the week.
  • More is better: Additional health benefits are gained by doing physical activity beyond the equivalent of 300 minutes (5 hours) of moderate-intensity physical activity a week.
  • Build muscle: Adults should also do muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity that involve all major muscle groups on two or more days a week, as these activities provide additional health benefits.

As noted in previous blogs, the problem of our nation’s physical inactivity cannot be understated – an estimated $117 billion in annual health care costs and about 10 percent of premature mortality associated with lack of exercise. In meeting the PAG recommendations, individuals who are physically active could not only benefit from lower healthcare costs but reduced risk of premature death by a staggering 33 percent compared with those who are inactive. And, of course, the virtue of physical activity is that it can benefit everyone — regardless of gender, age, race, ethnicity, or health status.

There is a multitude of well-known benefits of physical activity and the revised guidelines identify rich new evidence for the laundry list of benefits including, but not limited to:

  • Reduced risk of cancer
  • Brain health benefits (including improved cognitive function, reduced anxiety and depression risk, and improved sleep and quality of life)
  • Reduced risk of fall-related injuries for older adults
  • For people with various chronic medical conditions, reduced risk of all-cause and disease-specific mortality, improved function, and improved quality of life.

Like anything in life, we oftentimes know what we should do, but these benefits are only theoretical if we don’t get moving. It is helping individuals overcome such behavioral missteps that presents a critical opportunity to unlock the benefits of physical activity at the population level.

A JAMA Viewpoint article highlights several opportunities to promote physical activity, including leveraging technology like wearables and facilitating activity in the workplace. At Vitality, we wholeheartedly agree — by creating an ecosystem that facilitates behavior change by combining the right science, technology, and incentives one can generate sustained improvements in physical activity and other healthy behaviors. However, the onus cannot lie wholly on individuals and, as the Viewpoint suggests, creating healthy workplaces in which the healthier choice (including on-site gyms, active subsidized transportation, access to healthy food) is the natural choice is central to the fight against inactivity.

The achievement of a more physically active population will be predicated on a collaboration across government, technology, academic, industry and beyond. There is an endless array of health benefits to be unlocked through physical activity and there is no time to lose.

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