Let’s get America Moving Again, Part II: Are We Meeting Physical Activity Recommendations?
In my last two posts, I summarized my trip to Washington D.C. to lobby for physical activity and discussed some of the historical work that allowed us to determine physical activity is important for our health. Over the next several blog posts, we will continue to explore current issues surrounding physical activity levels in America. First let’s discuss the current physical activity recommendations.
If we were to summarize the current minimum physical recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Heart Association (AHA) in one sentence it would read: “Engage in moderate intensity exercise 30 minutes per day most days per week.” To further specify, we will say most means five days per week. However, it has recently been suggested that in addition to getting regular exercise, we should strive to build in activity throughout our day [1, 2]. “Sitting is the new smoking!” has been a rallying call around the internet and social media advocated by exercise physiologists, physical therapists, cardiologists, personal trainers, and more. So our question for the next couple of posts is, Are we meeting the minimum physical recommendations and are they enough?
I’ll start out by stating the obvious, a little exercise is better than no exercise and that for most people, more is better. The graph to the right shows that the more moderate to vigorous exercise you engage in per week, the less risk you have of death from all causes. We can see the biggest decline is from 0 to 100 minutes, again indicating that something is better than nothing. However, we can also see that there is what we could call a dose response (i.e., the more moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, the better).
The reason I say “a little exercise is better than no exercise and that for most people, more is better” is because some athletes, including recreational athletes do over train and under-recover, meaning they exercise two or three hours per day (sometimes more) and don’t facilitate recovery by drinking enough fluids, taking in enough high-quality calories, taking days off, and getting adequate, restful sleep*. Again, this only applies to a very small percentage of the population though. To their credit, the CDC and AHA have made it clear that more is better for the general population.
To answer the first part of our question - Are we meeting the minimum physical recommendations? - most Americans fail to even meet minimum physical activity requirements (see the CDC stats here).
- Just over 50% of adults aged 18 and over meet the Physical Activity Guidelines for aerobic physical activity.
- Even worse, only about 20% of adults aged 18 and over meet the Physical Activity Guidelines for both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity.
You can access full-text of the 2013 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Not surprisingly, age, education, and body composition were all associated with varying levels of physical activity. For example, over 30% of 18-24 year olds met the aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity recommendations, while less than 16% of those 65 years and older did. Over 27% of college educated adults met the recommendations, while less than 13% of those with less than a high school diploma did.
These data were analyzed from survey data collected from nearly 500,000 U.S. adults aged 18 and older. The survey participants were randomly selected and represent constituents from across all 50 states. Its worth mentioning that these are self-reported data as well, meaning the respondents likely overestimated how physically active they really were .
So, before we can debate about Americans needing more than the minimum recommended amount of physical activity, we should try to get our population just to meet current guidelines before stressing out about needing even more physical activity. Furthermore, the CDC, AHA, and other major health organizations already acknowledge that getting above the minimum recommendations is preferred. Lastly, many proponents of increased physical activity advocate for policy and societal changes that would also help those struggling to meet current guidelines get there.
In our next post (part III), we'll discuss some of the reasons Americans are not meeting physical activity recommendations and some proposed solutions to help get us there. Then in part IV we'll address the 2nd part of our question posed here (are the minimum physical recommendations enough). Until then, drop any questions or comments below and stay tuned!
Photo credit (people walking in park) to Stan V Peterson @ Pixabay
* Strava is a company trying to help athletes determine how “fresh” they are to prevent over training. I have no affiliation with the company, but have heard good things.
I use my Fitbit Charge 2 to track my steps and get a crude measure of my sleep quality. They sell simple trackers for as low as $60, and many other products to help monitor your health and health behaviors. Again, I have no affiliation.