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Moderate Exercise Too Much for Many

Health: Despite findings that exercise is a good thing and the easing of fitness recommendations, Americans just aren't doing it, a new report shows. Why are we such dedicated couch potatoes?


Americans are overwhelmingly failing to meet the recommended levels of physical activity despite a concerted attempt by health officials to make the requirement as easy as possible.

In the first-ever Surgeon General's Report on Physical Activity and Health released last week, health experts reminded Americans that regular, moderate activity can dramatically reduce the risk of many diseases and health problems related to aging.

Nevertheless, more than 60% of adults do not achieve the recommended amount of physical activity and 25% are not physically active at all.

And the outlook is bleak as Americans, averse to perspiration and heavy lifting, take to their sofas with snack foods in hand.

Even among young people ages 12 to 21, almost half are not vigorously active on a regular basis, with female teens far more sedentary than males. The report found that physical activity declines dramatically with age during adolescence.

The statistics on youth fitness are especially troubling because the young require a more vigorous level of activity for good health, said Dr. Antronette Yancey, director of public health for Richmond, Va., and UCLA faculty member.

"With them, it's more of an issue because they are supposed to be vigorously active. That's how they build muscle mass and store calcium in the bones. Exercise is so important for kids."

Parents aren't setting a good fitness example for children and neither are schools, the report found. Enrollment in daily, high school physical education classes dropped from 42% in 1991 to 25% in 1995.

"These are dangerous trends. We need to turn them around quickly," said Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala, who commissioned the report.

The report is grim considering a steady stream of scientific findings showing that fitness is a key to good health. Regular exercise can substantially reduce the risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer, osteoporosis and high blood pressure. Activity has also been shown to reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety, improve mood and enhance the ability to perform daily tasks.

Moreover, since the 1950s health educators have chipped away at lofty recommendations for what people need to do to stay fit. While participation in team sports was promoted in the 1950s and 1960s and intensive aerobic exercise was the mantra of the 1970s, the message is much more palatable now. Daily chores, walking to the bus stop, using stairs, playing outdoors with your kids--all count toward a recommended goal of 30 minutes a day of accumulated, moderately vigorous activity.

"The good news is, you don't have to train like an Olympic athlete to enjoy the benefits of a healthy lifestyle," Shalala said. "Walking, bicycling or even gardening for at least 30 minutes per day most days of the week is good for your health."

Acknowledging that many people cannot find the time for a solid, 30 minutes, the report emphasizes several recent studies noting that fitness gains are similar when activity occurs in several short sessions as compared to one longer session.

". . . For people who are unable to set aside 30 minutes for physical activity, shorter episodes are clearly better than none," the report states.

The report should be seen as a "call to action," said Acting Surgeon General Audrey F. Manley, noting that "active and healthful lifestyles are within the grasp of everyone."

But if that is so, the puzzling question remains: Why aren't more Americans moderately active?

"It's really surprising that no report like this has ever been done," said Vice President Al Gore.

Government leaders have not emphasized the fitness message strongly enough, said Yancey, who founded an exercise program called Fitness Funatics that is targeted at multiethnic groups in South Los Angeles.

"As a government, we spend way too much money on basic science research and not nearly enough money on trying to translate scientific findings into programs and interventions that affect the larger public," Yancey said. "We need someone to step up and say this is important."

The report was timed for release before the Olympics "when people are thinking about fitness and sports," said Sandra Perlmutter, executive director of the President's Council on Physical Fitness. "We want people to understand, about activity, that something is better than nothing at all and more is better."

The report noted that well-designed physical education programs in schools are effective and should be encouraged. Workplace fitness programs are also beneficial. Health professionals and community leaders need to explore ways to promote physical activity, the report urged.

* Times staff writer Josh Greenberg contributed to this story.

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