Nearly 2 out of 3 U.S. adults now say that they walk at least 10 minutes per week, officials reported this week. But too few are getting enough exercise to make a difference in their health, officials said. The latest numbers come from a 2010 national survey. Almost 62% of adults surveyed said they walked for 10 minutes or more at least once in the last week. That's up from 56% in 2005. People in the West walk the most. Those in the South walk least. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released the new numbers. Officials said the improvement is a first step toward getting more Americans active. The government recommends at least 150 minutes per week of walking or other moderate exercise. Research has shown that this amount of activity can improve health. Only about 48% of U.S. adults are getting this much exercise, the 2010 survey showed. But that's up from 42% in 2005. All of the statistics are from the National Health Interview Survey. The government does this large survey every 5 years. The Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report published the study. HealthDay News wrote about it August 7.
By Mary Pickett, M.D.
Harvard Medical School
What Is the Doctor's Reaction?
This week most Americans have participated in athletics -- by watching the Olympics on TV. Also this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published what it called an optimistic report. In the last five years, the CDC says, more Americans seemed to have started walking.
The CDC says that in 2005, 56% of Americans reported that they had "walked for transportation or leisure in at least one bout of 10 minutes or more in the preceding 7 days." In 2010, 62% of Americans answered "yes" to the same question.
This is progress. But is it fast enough progress, when we are staring our American obesity epidemic in the belly? Of course it is not.
What Changes Can I Make Now?
From 2007 to 2008, 62% of men and 64% of women in the United States were either overweight or obese. Obesity, defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher, decreases life expectancy by at least 6 years. (Some estimates say the decrease is up to 20 years.)
Government experts recommend that adults do moderate aerobic exercise, such as walking, for at least 150 minutes per week. About 75 minutes a week is recommended if the exercise is more intense, such as jogging. Fewer than half of U.S. adults are active enough to satisfy this guideline.
One-third of U.S. adults say in surveys that they do no aerobic activity during their leisure time.
Walking is a good start. In fact, the CDC says that if you answered yes to the walking question, you are more likely to do other exercise, too. And you are three times more likely to meet the government's aerobic physical activity guideline.
I am a primary care doctor. What do I tell my patients to do about exercise?
- Schedule it. Think ahead at the beginning of your week to at least two or three specific times you will be able to exercise.
- Build it in. Even better, make exercise part of your daily routine. This may mean walking or biking to work. It may mean choosing a parking lot that is farther from your office, or taking stairs in place of the elevator.
- Remove barriers. If you don't exercise, something probably is standing in the way. This might be an injury, lack of access to a gym, lack of a well-fitting swimsuit, or time commitments. But for any barrier to exercise there is a solution or a compromise. For example, if your exercise of choice hurts your knees, could you switch to swimming? Know your barriers, and plan around them. If you don't, they will keep getting in the way of your exercise.
- Set a goal, and monitor your progress. I recommend a goal that is about your behavior, not an endpoint goal like "20 pounds lost." For example, your goal could be: "Exercise twice a week." If you have had difficulty staying with a goal, try tracking your progress on a calendar. Maybe it will help if you report to someone about your progress. This can be your doctor, or a friend or family member.
What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?
In the past, obesity has been mostly blamed on individuals, who are criticized for their eating and exercise habits. More recently, there has been a growing awareness that factors in the community contribute to obesity. These factors include things like soda machines in schools, a lack of walking paths, or unsafe streets.
Several important national groups have recently published reports about ways that local and regional governments might use urban planning to make it easier for Americans to exercise. These reports might make good bedtime reading for our leaders. They include the "National Prevention Strategy" (Active Living section), the "National Physical Activity Plan" and the Institute of Medicine's consensus report "Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention: Solving the Weight of the Nation."
Many cities are doing what they can to make walking trails more accessible or appealing. Some are adding walking paths near worksites. Cities have made agreements with schools to allow public access to school tracks during non-school hours. Improved street lighting can improve safety for people who walk. Bike lanes and added sidewalks make a large difference.
As we look to the future, we should see more improvements such as these that will help us meet our exercise goals. But don't wait for the future -- make your changes today.