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Scientists Urge Patients to “Get off the Sofa and Get Active”

  [ 44 votes ]   [ Discuss This Article ] • February 14, 2002

Thirty years ago, American children grew up in a world consisting of four television channels, friendly sports that required no more than a glove and a bat, and a secure environment that allowed for endless exploration of the neighborhood. The changing times have lead to bad health habits, making the family physician's role more critical than ever.

Today, more than 100 stations are available today for TVs with cable and the bat and glove have been replaced by Game Boys and action-figure software. For many parents, especially those who work outside the home, the greatest sense of security is when a child is safely rooted on the family sofa rather than outside, running around, unsupervised. Inactivity may provide relief for some parents, but it comes with a price.

The authors of a new report published in the February 2002 edition of the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, assert that today's lifestyle is crippling the health of this and future generations, and they urge the primary care physicians take advantage of their contact with the patient to intervene.

Experts from the fields of medicine and physiology have joined together to summarize an avalanche of epidemiological and biochemical evidence that supports the benefits of moderate physical activity. Their findings have led a call to family physicians to include physical activity counseling into patient care.

An Alarming Profile of American In-Activity

* Approximately 70 percent of American adults do not understand physical activity or are underactive, and nearly half of this country's youth (12-21 years) are not vigorously active on a regular basis.

* A documented decline in physical activity has been correlated with a sharp rise in television viewing hours. Such sedentary behavior in children is believed to translate into an identical lifestyle as an adult.

* The sedentary lifestyle among young people has led to a doubling of childhood obesity rates in the last 20 years.

* A sedentary adult is at greater risk for chronic heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, and hypertension. Although many of these chronic heath conditions do not begin until middle age, the biochemical or cardiovascular risk factors can be found in 60 percent of obese children.

* Aging Americans who settle for a life of bed rest may be signing on to an early death warrant. A recent study found that three weeks of continuous bed rest by healthy volunteers was associated with muscle wasting, bone loss, insulin resistance, a reduction in cardiac output, and decreased immune function.

The Causes

Avoidance of activity may be linked to a negative connotation of the word "exercise," which many associate with pain and discomfort.

While the US gene pool has not significantly changed in the last ten years, rates for obesity have soared. The main cause associated with the changes in rates is environmental change. A documented decline in physical activity has been correlated with a sharp rise in television viewing hours.

Unfortunately, obesity is only the beginning of the body's problems. Genes that evolved to be used by physically active humans cannot easily adapt to the sedentary lifestyle. The sedentary individual cannot oxidize enough food to keep their genes from expressing enough of the important proteins required to suppress modern-day metabolic and circular dysfunctions.

The Front Line Defense: Primary Care Physicians

The opportunity for the family physician to intervene already exists. Each year, the nation's 100,000 primary care doctors see millions of Americans seeking treatment for a wide range of medical disorders. The range of motivations for seeing the doctor range from general physicals and check-ups to specific types of complains, many of which do not require specialty treatment.

Despite the evidence of the problems associated with sedentary lifestyles, less than half of patients now receive advice from their primary care provider to get moving and increase their level of physical activity.

If the sedentary individual engaged in three hours of moderate physical activity (such as walking) a week he or she would have a 30 percent reduction in the risk for four of the nation's leading killers: coronary artery disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and colon cancer. If not addressed, these risk factors can become overt later in life, leading to disease. Thus, prevention strategies are essential for diminishing morbidity and mortality rates associated with chronic disease. (Note: The researchers' summary of common chronic health conditions where physical activity has a direct role in positive outcomes is available.)


The prescription to a healthier lifestyle is doable and practical. Recommended activities that all patients should receive include "prescriptions" calling for:

* Walking and bicycling 15 minutes twice a day, in lieu of driving that short distance.

* Parking on the far side of the shopping mall instead of circling the lot, looking for a space nearest the entrance.

* Climbing stairs, doing yard work, or playing with grandchildren.

* Always turning off the television.

The authors contend that the medical community should lead the way in pulling Americans away from their televisions and computers. They cite studies that prove that aggressive counseling on physical activity leads to an increased exercise regimen by patients. Moreover, the family doctor is almost always the most trusted and authoritative source for health recommendations.

The authors acknowledge the barriers physicians have to such an effort, which include a reduced amount of time to work with patients, inadequate information for counseling about physical activity/inactivity, and the lack of reimbursement for such services. Nonetheless, the authors urge every primary care physician to make the effort.

Intervention and prevention strategies are essential for diminishing morbidity and mortality rates associated with chronic disease spawned from a sedentary lifestyle. Reversing or preventing these conditions is the rationale for incorporating physical activity counseling into the routine practice of primary care.

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