Physical inactivity prevalent in U.S.

December 19, 1999

Americans are unlikely to meet the nation's physical activity goals for the year 2000, study results suggest.

"More public health efforts to encourage activity are needed, at individual, community, and public-policy levels," said lead author Bess H. Marcus, PhD. "Our nation is unlikely to reach the Healthy People 2000 goal that no more than 15 percent of individuals aged six years or older be sedentary."

Sixty percent of U.S. adults are thought to be inactive or underactive, and thus at increased risk for heart disease. Only approximately 14 percent of U.S. adults follow the American College of Sports Medicine's advice to exercise vigorously for at least 20 minutes, three times a week.

A recent Surgeon General's report, that also recognizes beneficial health effects in moderate intensity activities accumulated during the day, may encourage more Americans to incorporate physical activity into their lives, suggest the researchers.

But more public-health efforts are also needed, according to Marcus and LeighAnn H. Forsyth, PhD, both of the Brown University/Lifespan Center for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine in Providence, RI. The results of their research appear in the November/December issue of The American Journal of Health Promotion.

At the level of the individual, programs incorporating cognitive-behavioral concepts have been shown to increase physical activity levels by 10 to 25 percent, at least in the short term. But such efforts have not been widely implemented, according to the researchers.

Worksite programs are one example of a successful effort to encourage physical activity at the community level. In fact, worksites with health promotion programs increased from 22 percent in 1985 to 42 percent in 1992, surpassing Healthy People 2000 goals.

But more such efforts are needed. "Physicians and other health care professionals have the potential to counsel a significant proportion of the population about physical activity, but they spend little time doing so," said Marcus. "More community-based interventions are needed for youth in particular, as almost half of 12 to 21-year-olds do not engage in regular vigorous physical activity."

"Policy efforts to encourage lifestyle change are underimplemented and little data exist as to their effectiveness. But evidence does suggest that creating environments supportive of physical activity is as important as individual behavior change processes," said Marcus. Thus policy efforts resulting in tax incentives for physical activity, insurance coverage for physical activity counseling, as well as bicycle and walking paths, and safer stairwells, are likely to have beneficial effects.

"Physical activity has been engineered out of most people's daily lives as elevators are often centrally located while stairways are hidden, and convenient parking often exists without adequate public transportation and bike and walking paths," said Marcus.
The American Journal of Health Promotion is a bimonthly peer-reviewed journal solely dedicated to the field of health promotion. For information about the journal call (248) 682-0707 or visit the journal's website at

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Center for Advancing Health

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