The largest health concern in America today is the number of people who are overweight or obese. It accounts for just about every preventable disease we know about.
Being overweight or obese increases one’s risk for heart attack, stroke, diabetes, osteoporosis, cancer and all the way down to acid reflux. One major problem is our diets. If you’ve read my blog before you know we’ve discussed that in detail. The other major problem is our level of exercise.
Exercise is critically important because it increases our metabolism, burns stored body fat, reduces bad cholesterol and increases good cholesterol, improves mood and increases the efficiency of our hearts. Despite all of this information most people still do not exercise! Only 31% of Americans get enough exercise for it to be considered beneficial (i.e. playing a half hour of tennis a week is not enough). And a full 40% do not exercise at all! These numbers are quite staggering.
Currently the guidelines state that one should get 2 1/2 hours per week of moderately intense exercise or 1 1/4 hours of very intense exercise for it to be beneficial. Moderately intense exercise would include brisk walking and intense would include jogging or swimming. I’m not sure I agree with their classifications, but that’s for another blog. It isn’t particularly important for this article anyway.
Part of the problem with Americans exercising (or not as is the case most of the time) is that it is not part of the fabric of our society. It isn’t in our faces. Unfortunately the things that are in our faces are things like fast food ads, pharmaceutical ads and snack food ads. These things have become part of the fabric of American society. The big corporations that profit from these sorts of things are extremely good at what they do. They market to you in a way that makes it seem like there is no greater thing in the world than their product. They try to make you feel that if you don’t have it, use it or take it you are going to be left out. It appeals to us in a way that is very primal. It appeals to us on a subconscious level in that being alone or singled out is dangerous for survival. Of course we know cognitively that if we don’t eat McDonald’s we are not going to be left alone to die in the woods, but there’s still something about being part of the group that we just can’t quite put our finger on.
What is this was exercise? That if you didn’t exercise you would be one of the few who didn’t? You wouldn’t want to be left alone so you’d start exercising. These things are not marketed because you generally can’t make money by telling people to get outside and walk. A new program, however, is putting a foot forward to try and get people out and moving to make America healthier.
The program is called the U.S. National Physical Activity Plan. Among groups involved are the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society. Now I have my gripes with each one of these groups for some of their positions and lack of action on certain subjects, but this is a step in the right direction. Their ideas include:
- Make sure roadway spending includes money for “complete streets,” accommodating cars, bikes and pedestrians.
- Have doctors assess patients’ physical activity levels at appointments and discuss ways they can meet the activity guidelines.
- Encourage early childhood education programs to have little ones as physically active as possible.
- Provide access to and opportunities for physical activity before and after school.
- Encourage school officials to find ways for children to walk and bike safely to school.
- Provide tax breaks for building owners or employers who provide amenities in workplaces that support active commuting, such as showers in buildings, secure bicycle parking, free bicycles or transit subsidies.
- Increase funding and resources for parks, recreation, fitness and sports programs and facilities in areas of high need.
These ideas are good because they force people to start thinking about their physical activity levels. It does so by making it “in your face.” Think about it – if everywhere you went you saw bike paths, walking paths, parks and other outdoor recreational facilities, wouldn’t it make you think about getting outside and getting moving? I think so.
Of particular importance is having doctors asses their patients’ physical fitness and activity levels and educating children from a young age about physical fitness. Most doctors have a lot left to be desired in terms of assessing their patients’ physical fitness and recommending changes. Routinely my patients tell me that their primary care doctors have only brushed over needing to exercise more. Probably because they are not adequately trained to do so. More appropriate resources are people actually trained in fitness and exercise.
Educating young people is the most important. If we can educate young people we can “get ’em for life.” A person that forms a habit young, good or bad, generally keeps it for the rest of their life. I think getting young people involved in sports and fitness would significantly change the metabolic landscape of the country.
A healthy diet and exercise are two important factors that are missing from most Americans’ lives. Getting exercise to become part of the fabric of society would be key to getting people to accept and understand the benefits that it offers.