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by U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher

Everyone knows that physical activity is good for you, but how do you find the time for it?

As Surgeon General, I hear that question every day. The answer has important implications for everyone. It's a three-part response:

1) It doesn't take as much time or effort as you may think.

2) You can easily make time in your own home or at your office.

3) There are ways your community and your workplace can help.

I recently served as chairman of a meeting where we assembled experts from around the country to review the progress we were making on our nation's health goals for the decade -- also known as Healthy People 2000. What I heard gave me cause for concern about the physical activity levels of the American people, but also gave me increased optimism about strategies that we can individually and collectively pursue to improve those activity levels.

Two studies published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that you can improve your health as effectively through small lifestyle changes and moderate physical activity as you can by following a vigorous exercise program. Such moderate activity can be as simple as walking around the block, working in the garden, or taking the stairs instead of an elevator.

These studies documented what the government asserted two years ago in the first-ever Surgeon General's Report on Physical Activity and Health -- that even moderate physical activity can have substantial health benefits. In that report, we recommended that people engage in moderate activity for at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week.

Why is this so important? Because Americans are getting heavier -- 55 percent of adults are either overweight or obese and nearly one-quarter of adolescents and children are overweight or obese. Obesity is a risk factor for heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. In fact, we could reduce the incidence of Type II diabetes in this country by one-third if everyone would get active for 30 minutes a day, five days a week.

According to a recently released study, the lack of physical activity is "one of the major underlying causes of premature death" in this country. Physical activity also leads to stress reduction, and it can help seniors maintain their balance and flexibility and stave off the debilitating effects of arthritis.

At our Healthy People progress review, we found that employers around the country have acknowledged the importance of physical activity by offering their employees on-site facilities and information about diet and exercise. Outside the workplace, there are informal groups of neighbors who go walking several times a week, and recreation centers and social clubs offer group activities.

Seniors around the country have formed activity groups with titles like "Babes on Blades," "Water Pistols," and "Rodeo Grandmas." This is the International Year of the Older Person, and it's a time when I can heartily endorse the message of astronaut and former Senator John Glenn, who has encouraged Americans to "exercise to the best of your ability -- do what you can do!"

A critical part of our national strategy must be to start with our young people, and encourage children to engage in active play and be outdoors in day care centers and at school. Over the course of this decade, the number of schools requiring daily physical activity has seriously declined and recess periods have been threatened. Accordingly, the percentage of students participating in daily physical activity has declined from 45 percent in 1991 to about 25 percent today. Incredibly, it appears that we will fail to meet our Healthy People goal of having 27 percent of high school students participating in daily physical activity by the year 2000. Parents, teachers and the public health community need to join together to ensure that children and adolescents have time to be physically active.

There are 13 physical activity objectives in the Healthy People plan for the year 2000. We are moving in the right direction with most of these, but without your involvement we will not become a healthier nation. I hope you will follow my prescription -- be as active as you can be, and you will be taking good care of yourself.

To find out more about Healthy People, call 1-800-367-4725 or visit the Healthy People web site at Older adults can get a free brochure, while supplies last, on lifelong fitness by calling 1-800-222-2225.

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Partnerships for Health in the New Millennium          January 24-28, 2000         Omni Shoreham Hotel, Washington, DC

Updated: 05/01/08