Americans have become remarkably health conscious. According to a Los Angeles Times Poll, they are exercising and reading the labels of food packages. They are cutting down on sugar, alcohol and, especially, red meat. They are eating more vegetables and drinking more water.
Not everyone is pursuing virtue at the dinner table or in a health club, but many Americans, especially women, say good health is what they want most out of life. And, increasingly, they are willing to make sacrifices to get what they want.
Given only one choice, the survey asked, what is the most important thing in life: to be creative, famous, powerful, wealthy, healthy?
Of the 3,583 Americans interviewed, only 1% wanted power, 5% wealth, 6% creativity, 8% success; 10% wanted a happy marriage, 16% wanted to help others. But a striking 50% of all adults--43% of men and 55% of women--said they wanted health and a long life above all else, confirming the popular adage, "If you have your health, you have everything."
The Times Poll, directed by I. A. Lewis, conducted its survey of good health by telephone during this past summer. On a survey of this size and complexity, the margin of error is estimated to be 2 percentage points in either direction.
Apparently spurred by growing publicity about the virtues of exercise, the majority of American adults--53% of women and 60% of men--say that they exercise regularly.
When asked whether they had in fact exercised the week before, however, an overwhelming majority--90% of men and 85% of women--said they had engaged in some kind of physical activity or sport in recent days, suggesting that almost all Americans exercise sporadically, even if they don't work out regularly.
The most popular form of activity was walking (39%), followed by swimming (15%), bicycling (8%) and jogging (7%).
"Not surprisingly," Lewis says, "the poll also shows that people who were well-to-do and single were more likely than others to exercise. For reasons that aren't immediately apparent, liberals and conservatives are more likely than middle-of-the-roaders to be involved in exercise. And Republicans are also somewhat more likely than Democrats to be frequent exercisers . . . confirming the notion that exercise is an an upscale occupation."
Southern Californians, who by reputation wrote the primer on good looks and healthy life styles, are, in fact, more likely to exercise than are people living in any other part of the country. While more than half of all Americans said they exercise regularly, nearly two-thirds of Californians said they are habitual exercisers.
New Englanders are also frequent exercisers, The Times Poll found, but, according to a survey released last summer by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, New Yorkers are the most sedentary of all Americans.
Weather does not seem to explain fully the higher exercises rate in Southern California, according to The Times Poll.
Even though most Americans say they exercise outdoors at least part of the time, inclement weather does not seem to deter them from their activities. Only about one of four people outside Southern California complained that it was sometimes too hot or too cold to exercise, and nearly one of five Southern Californians says he or she faced similar difficulties, despite the general perception that the weather is nearly always mild in their part of the world.
Contrary to popular opinion, Californians are not as hedonistic or vain as the rest of the country would like to believe. They are less likely than other Americans to exercise simply to improve their looks, and they are somewhat more likely to exercise for better health, although the majority of all Americans say their primary reason for exercising is to make themselves healthier.
Californians are also more likely than other Americans to be injured at sports; they spend slightly more money on buying equipment and paying health-club dues to make themselves healthier and they are more determined than other Americans to choose vacation spots where it is possible to exercise.
While Americans seem to be exercising more than they used to do, they are not exercising nearly as much as doctors believe they should to keep their bodies trim and to keep their internal organs, such as their hearts and lungs, fit.
Only about 8% of adult Americans are getting as much exercise as the now-standard government recommendation for the level and type of exercise desirable for good health, according to surveys released this summer by the Centers for Disease Control. Basically that recommendation is that healthy adults should spend 15 to 25 minutes a day, three to four days a week, doing some form of exercise vigorous enough to elevate breathing and heart rates but not so vigorous that it becomes impossible to talk comfortably.