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Physical Inactivity

What's the Problem?

Increasingly, researchers are learning that regular exercise and good nutrition are critical to sustained good health. In fact, estimates are that some 300,000 deaths each year in the U. S. likely are the results of physical inactivity and poor eating habits. These deaths range across a number of diseases, from heart disease and stroke to colon cancer and diabetes.

Good exercise and nutrition habits, especially if formed in childhood (although it is never too late to change one's habits), can help prevent high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol, which contribute to heart disease and stroke. They can reduce obesity, which is closely associated with these diseases, as well as with diabetes and certain types of cancer. They also help in building strong bones, which are needed to prevent osteoporosis later in life. Other benefits include anxiety and stress reduction, improved self-esteem, and general feelings of well being.

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Physical activity levels tend to decrease as a person ages. Of youths aged 12 and 13, 69% are regularly physically active, but, the number drops to 38% for young people between 18 and 21. A physically inactive child is more likely to become a physically inactive adult, which can lead to chronic disease and premature death.

Between 1991 and 1997, the percentage of students who attended a daily physical education class dropped from 42% to 27%. The lack of organized physical activity in our nation's schools sends a false message to young people that being active isn't important.

Daily opportunities to burn calories have diminished. We now see fewer sidewalks and a greater emphasis on driving rather than walking or bicycling. Also, our society is more automated and we have labor-saving devices at work and home. These problems, along with popular sedentary activities such as watching TV and using computers, have all contributed to the decline of physical activity.

Who's at Risk?

Young people and adults are at risk for health problems when they are inactive. Physical activity declines dramatically during adolescence. Nearly half of young people between 12 and 21 do not regularly engage in vigorous physical activity; participation in all types of physical activity declines strikingly as people age. Only about a third of adults meet current public health recommendations for regular moderate physical activity (five times a week for at least 30 minutes), and about a quarter report no leisure-time physical activity at all.

Can It Be Prevented?

Yes. Physical activity and a healthy diet can enhance health and prevent disease. Both children and adults need to find ways to increase the amount of weight-bearing (e.g., running, walking) and aerobic (e.g., biking, swimming) exercise. They also need to give greater attention to diets low in fat, high in fiber, calcium, and fruits and vegetables to promote better health.

Tips for Scripts

  • INFORM viewers they can get numerous health benefits from regular physical activity.
  • ENCOURAGE people to look for a variety of ways to be physically active every day: competitive (sports, games) or noncompetitive (hiking, dancing, walking).
  • REMIND viewers that healthy habits are developed during childhood and can last a lifetime.

Case Example

Happily married, 38-year-old Liz is a mother to an 11-year-old daughter and owner of a successful catering business. Liz feels as though she's in the prime of her life, but does not have the energy she should have. During her annual exam, her physician finds that she has gained 18 pounds since her last physical and her blood glucose and cholesterol levels are higher than they have ever been. Concerned that Liz is a likely candidate to develop heart disease and diabetes, the doctor inquires about her diet and physical activity habits. Liz reports that she rarely makes time to eat regular meals with her family, often eating whatever food she has prepared for her catering business clients. Although she ran track in high school, since the birth of her daughter, she does not find the time to be physically active anymore. Her recent attempts to become physically active were unsuccessful; she dislikes structured gym routines and has painful muscles after her most recent attempts. She also mentions that her entire family eats on the run and does not get much exercise most of the time.

The doctor gives her a phased "prescription" for healthier eating and more enjoyable physical activity, stressing the need to increase the family's fruit and vegetable consumption and make time most days of the week for physical activity. The doctor stressed the need for each member of the family to find activities that they like and can look forward to on a daily basis, such as a brisk walk or bicycling. Liz and her family have made an effort to eat healthier and have started to take family walks and bicycle together three days a week. They have found a number of other activities to add variety to their physical activity and enjoy a healthier lifestyle most days of the week. When the weather is bad, Liz and her daughter go mall walking and her husband shoots baskets at the local gym.

  • Page last reviewed: February 22, 2011
  • Page last updated: February 22, 2011
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