Nearly every morning around 6, Louis and Ginger Sullivan lace up their walking shoes, tune their personal stereos to the news and set out on a brisk, three-mile walk along the Potomac. When he travels in his capacity as Secretary of Health and Human Services, Sullivan, a hematologist, packs his walking shoes and often invites others to stride along.
So it was fitting that Sullivan observed the recent release of Healthy People 2000, a national blueprint for improving Americans' health over the next decade, by leading 300 "power walkers" around Rock Creek Park to highlight the need for exercise and other healthy behavior.
"Personal responsibility is vital to good health," Sullivan wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association the week HHS announced the nation's health goals. "Better control of fewer than 10 risk factors -- such as poor diet, lack of prenatal care, infrequent exercise, the use of tobacco, alcohol and other drug abuse, and failure to use seat belts -- could prevent between 40 percent and 70 percent of all premature deaths, a third of all cases of acute disability and two thirds of all cases of chronic disability."
Physical activity and fitness is one of 22 "priority areas" outlined in Healthy People 2000, created by the U.S. Public Health Service with help from more than 300 health-related organizations nationwide. Others include nutrition, tobacco, environmental health, heart disease and stroke. The 12 physical activity and fitness objectives aim to get "people healthier by getting them active," says Christine Spain of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.
"What we have to worry about is . . . a sedentary society," says epidemiologist Carl Caspersen of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. "Currently, at least one in four American adults engages in no leisure-time physical activity."
Sedentary people are almost twice as likely to develop coronary heart disease as active people, making inactivity just slightly less risky than cigarette smoking, high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol, the Healthy People 2000 report notes. More people are at risk for coronary heart disease from inactivity than from any other risk factor; those with other risk factors for coronary heart disease, such as obesity and hypertension, may particularly benefit from physical exertion.
Concern about the risks of inactivity is particularly acute, because America is an aging society and sedentary habits increase with age. But the good news for those trying to jump-start America's sofa spuds is that even a little bit of activity can significantly improve health.
"Increasing evidence suggests that light to moderate physical activity, below the level recommended for cardio-respiratory fitness, can have significant health benefits, including a decreased risk of coronary heart disease," according to the report. "Regular physical activity can help to prevent and manage coronary heart disease, hypertension, non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, osteoporosis, obesity and mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety.
"Regular physical activity has also been associated with lower rates of colon cancer and stroke and may be linked to reduced back injury. On average, physically active people outlive those who are inactive." The report also said evidence shows that activity helps older adults maintain independence.
The average American, Caspersen says, should "go out and get some physical activity every day. A brisk, 30-minute walk, especially for older adults, is terrific." If you don't have 30 minutes, walk for 20. If you don't have 20 minutes, try for two 10-minute walks.
Healthy People 2000's objectives include: Get at least 30 percent of Americans age 6 and older to engage in light to moderate physical activity for at least 30 minutes per day. Convince at least 40 percent of people 6 and older to regularly perform physical activities that enhance and maintain strength, endurance and flexibility.
Get at least 50 percent of children in first through 12th grades to take daily school physical education classes.
Lengthen the time students spend being physically active in gym class, so they are moving for at least half the period, preferably engaged in activities they may pursue all their lives, such as walking and swimming.
Improve the proportion of worksites offering employer-sponsored fitness programs to 20 percent for companies with 50 to 99 employees, 35 percent for those with 100 to 249 employees, 50 percent for employers with 250 to 749 workers and 80 percent for those with more than 750.
Get at least half of all primary care providers to routinely assess and counsel patients regarding the frequency, duration, type and intensity of physical activity practices.
Bodyworks appears on alternate Tuesdays.