Health & Medicine

Exercise will help us avoid chronic diseases

Chronic diseases afflict 100 million Americans, cause seven out of 10 deaths, and consume $2 out of every $3 spent on health care.

Yet much of the burden — personal and financial — can be prevented with simple lifestyle choices. A major contributing factor is physical inactivity. Americans just aren't moving enough, and it's killing them.

To combat this burgeoning health threat, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has just released a practical road map to a healthier lifestyle, called the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Developed with the help of the nation's leading physical-activity scientists, these guidelines provide specific recommendations on what we need to do and how long we need to do it.

More than 50 percent of American adults do not get enough physical activity, and one-quarter of adults are not active at all in their leisure time. As a consequence, conditions such as obesity, coronary heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, colon and breast cancer, and depression affect more than 100 million adults.

Inactive children are at increased risk for eventually developing illnesses like diabetes and heart disease. The cost of treating these chronic conditions accounts for more than 70 percent of the $2 trillion-plus that America spends on health care each year. In other words, by just sitting around and not exercising, Americans waste $1.4 trillion every year.

Thankfully, the cure for what ails us hardly costs anything at all. You don't need to belong to a gym or health club. You don't need fancy equipment. Most of us don't even need a doctor's permission before beginning therapy. These guidelines state that adults should get at least two and a half hours each week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity like fast walking, dancing or raking leaves.

Adults should also do activities to strengthen muscles and bones — such as lifting weights, doing pushups, working with resistance bands or digging in the garden — at least two days a week.

After you get in decent shape, you can save time by replacing some or all of the moderate-intensity aerobic activity with vigorous-intensity physical activity like jogging, fast swimming and other activities that take more effort. Vigorous-intensity activity provides comparable health benefits to moderate-intensity activity in about half the time.

It's important to keep in mind that some physical activity is better than none. These guidelines present scientific evidence that Americans who are inactive can begin to gain health improvements by adding as little as 10 minutes of physical activity every day. Being physically active is an important part of living a longer, healthier, happier life. It can help relieve stress, reduce feelings of depression and anxiety, and improve self-esteem.

In addition to reducing the risks of chronic conditions and helping to achieve and maintain a healthy weight, physical activity helps build and maintain bones, muscles and joints, builds endurance and enhances flexibility and posture.

These guidelines reinforce my priorities as secretary, which have been to create a culture of wellness to help Americans prevent debilitating and costly health problems. Built on the foundation of individual responsibility for personal wellness, this culture emphasizes regular physical activity, a healthful diet, preventive health measures such as medical screenings, and avoidance of risky behaviors like smoking and drug abuse.

There are many ways to build the right amount of activity into your life. Whether it is activity already a part of your day or an activity you used to enjoy that you haven't done in a while — such as basketball, tennis or yard work — let's learn from these new guidelines and become a nation that is more physically active.