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Physical Activity

women walking According to the 1996 U.S. Surgeon General's Report on Physical Activity and Health, people of all ages who are generally inactive can improve their health and well-being by becoming even moderately active on a regular basis.

Regular physical activity that is performed on most days of the week reduces the risk for developing or dying from some of the leading causes of illness in the United States, such as heart disease. Regular physical activity can also improve health in the following ways:

  • Reduces the risk for dying prematurely
  • Reduces the risk for dying from heart disease
  • Reduces the risk for developing diabetes
  • Reduces the risk for developing high blood pressure
  • Helps reduce blood pressure in people who already have high blood pressure
  • Reduces the risk for developing colon cancer
  • Reduces feelings of depression and anxiety
  • Helps control weight
  • Helps build and maintain healthy bones, muscles, and joints
  • Helps older adults become stronger and better able to move about without falling
  • Promotes psychologic well-being

Although research has been limited, evidence so far indicates that aspects of the home, workplace, and community environments influence a person's level of physical activity. For example, the availability and accessibility of attractive stairwells, bicycle paths, walking paths, exercise facilities, and swimming pools, as well as the overall aesthetics and perceived safety of an environment, may play a role in determining the type and amount of physical activity people engage in.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report Physical Activity Fundamental to Preventing Disease,

"Encouraging more activity can be as simple as establishing walking programs at schools, work sites and in the community. Some communities have an existing infrastructure that supports physical activity, such as sidewalks and bicycle trails, and worksites, schools, and shopping areas in close proximity to residential areas. In many other areas, such community amenities need to be developed to foster walking, cycling, and other types of exercise as a regular part of daily activity."

Being physically active helps combat problems that can result from a sedentary lifestyle, such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

According to results of the 1999-2000 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), an estimated 64% of U.S. adults aged 20 years and older are classified as overweight or obese. Among U.S. adults, obesity has doubled since 1980, increasing from 15% in 1980 to 31% in 2000, and the percentage of children and adolescents who are defined as overweight has more than doubled since the early 1970s.

Overweight and obese adults are at increased risk for physical ailments such as--

  • Coronary heart disease
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood cholesterol (dyslipidemia)
  • Type 2 noninsulin-dependent diabetes
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Asthma
  • Obstructive sleep apnea and respiratory problems
  • Some types of cancer (such as endometrial, breast, prostate, and colon)
  • Complications of pregnancy (such as gestational diabetes, gestational hypertension, and preeclampsia) as well as complications in operative delivery (i.e., cesarean sections)
  • Poor female reproductive health (such as menstrual irregularities, infertility, and irregular ovulation)
  • Psychologic disorders (such as depression, eating disorders, distorted body image, and low self-esteem)

An estimated 17 million Americans have diabetes, and about one third of those people affected are unaware of their condition. About one million new cases are diagnosed every year in the United States. Not only is diabetes the seventh leading cause of death among Americans, it also is the leading cause of new cases of blindness, kidney failure, and lower extremity amputations and greatly increases a person's risk for heart attack or stroke. Diabetes accounts for more than $98 billion in direct and indirect medical costs and lost productivity each year. The progression of diabetes can be delayed by--

  • Preventing obesity
  • Focusing on improved nutrition
  • Engaging in regular physical activity
  • Controlling blood sugar levels
  • Improving access to services

Research studies in the United States and abroad have found that lifestyle changes, such as consistent moderate intensity physical activity and a healthy diet, may reduce a person's risk for developing type 2 diabetes by 40% to 60%.

Heart Disease and Stroke
More than 61 million Americans have some form of cardiovascular disease (CVD), including high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke, congestive heart failure, and other conditions. More than 2,600 Americans die each day of CVD. That is an average of 1 death every 33 seconds. CVDs cost the nation an estimated $300 billion annually, including health expenditures and lost productivity.

Research conducted in California, Minnesota, and Rhode Island during the 1980s demonstrated how community interventions that improve our environment are particularly effective in reducing heart disease and stroke throughout the entire community.

For more information on physical activity, refer to the following resources:

Environmental and Policy Approaches to Increase Physical Activity: Community-Scale Urban Design Land Use Policies
The CDC-funded Task Force on Community Preventive Services recommends design and land use policies and practices that support physical activity in urban areas of several square miles or more based on sufficient evidence of effectiveness in facilitating an increase in physical activity. The recommendation is based on a systematic review of all available studies, conducted on behalf of the Task Force by a team of specialists in systematic review methods, and in research, practice and policy related to physical activity.

2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans
The Federal Government has issued its first-ever Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. They describe the types and amounts of physical activity that offer substantial health benefits to Americans.

Humpel N, Owen N, Leslie E. Environmental factors associated with adults’ participation in physical activity, a review. Am J Prev Med 2002;22(3):188-99.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical activity fundamental to preventing disease 2002 June 20.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Physical activity and health at-a-glance. A report of the surgeon general 1996.

Active Living Research’s literature database
The Active Living Research online literature database features papers which study the relationship between environment and policy with physical activity and obesity. The purpose of the searchable database is to make detailed information on study characteristics and results accessible to all and to improve the use of studies for research and policy purposes.

For more information on obesity and weight management, refer to the following resources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Center for Health Statistics

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity

For more information on diabetes, refer to the following resources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion

For more information on heart disease and stroke, refer to the following resources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion heart disease and stroke prevention page:

For more information related to physical activity, refer to the following resources:

American Heart Association. Creating Spaces: Changing the Built Environment to Promote Active Living [PDF - 136 KB]. Washington, DC: American Heart Association; 2012.

The fact sheet recommends increasing physical activity opportunities and recreational spaces where people live, work, learn and play so that people can become or stay more physically fit.

Saelens BE, Sallis JF, Frank LD. Environmental correlates of walking and cycling: findings from the transportation, urban design, and planning literatures. Ann Behav Med, 2003; 25:80-91.

Lefebvre RC, Lasater TM, Carleton RA, et al. Theory and delivery of health programming in the community: the Pawtucket Heart Health Program. Prev Med 1987;16:80-95.

Additional information on physical activity and related topics can be found in the Additional Resources section.

Reference used to develop this article:

American Heart Association. 2002 heart and stroke statistical update. Dallas: AHA; 2000.

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