Opinion: Less than 25% of American adults are getting enough exercise. Here’s how it’s impacting our health.

Health care providers underutilize physical activity as a part of traditional medicine.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Visitors hike into Park Avenue in Arches National Park, Monday, May 15, 2023.

Exercise is the best medicine. It can aid in preventing and reducing obesity, boost overall mood, increase happy hormones, decrease cardiovascular disease and improve the overall quality of life.

More than 50% of chronic health issues stem from physical inactivity. The rate of people who partake in daily exercise is surprisingly low with only 24.2% of adults 18 and over meeting the guidelines for physical activity.

The Healthy People 2030 guidelines for physical activity are pretty straightforward: Adults need 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity physical activity. That equals about 21 minutes per day of physical activity — and, again, only 24% of adults are meeting that.

There are over seven different types of cancers that are linked to physical inactivity, as are depression and Type 2 diabetes. While environment and genetics also play a role in one’s predisposition to cancer, physical activity can target more body functions and organs than any other medicine or gene.

Looking at diabetes specifically, aerobic exercise compared to any pharmacology for diabetes is the biggest contributing factor to improving long-term health. This also applies to coronary heart disease and heart failure. It has been shown that increasing physical activity to meet the 150 minute per week guideline is just as effective as pharmacological medication.

In terms of mental illness, the lack of exercise is frequently a key factor that is contributing to a person’s depression or other mental health conditions.

Individuals often look for medication to cure them of whatever disease is burdening them, and can often underestimate the value of physical activity while seeking an “instant” cure to their medical concern. Exercise needs to be included in the questionnaires that are given by primary care doctors. It should be included in our health history the same way that our blood pressure or weight is routinely taken at the doctor’s office. Looking into a person’s level of physical activity and implementing an exercise program can drastically decrease the amount of medications that Americans are taking. Of course, those with more serious illness or disease need to consult with their doctors on their physical activity levels as modifications may need to be made.

Using exercise as the first line of defense for disease prevention is extremely effective. Kaiser Permanente in California created an exercise vital sign in 2009 to look at all patients’ levels of physical activity. Intermountain Healthcare also has a similar vital sign now called PAVS (physical activity vital sign) which is taken at doctor’s visits. This type of program is something that should be universally implemented throughout the health care system, including mental health settings.

Health care providers underutilize physical activity as a part of traditional medicine. Many physicians have not had sufficient training on exercise and how it is so important to use as a part of a person’s medical well-being. We also need to inform and train physicians about the extensive benefits exercise provides in the fight against disease and overall prevention of illnesses.

With all this information; how can we make a change? Schools, workplaces and health care facilities need to advertise how physical activity benefits one’s overall health and prevents disease and illness. People need to be made more aware of the 150 minutes per week recommendation and be taken into account during health care exams and checkups. When working in the mental health field, the amount of exercise a person participates in should be one of the first questions asked during their intake.

On a micro level, you can simply go on a brisk walk for 20 minutes a day to reap the benefits of physical activity. Bringing a friend along is another way to impact others to do the same.

Spreading the word that exercise as medicine is the biggest solution we have to solving many chronic diseases and illnesses.

Samantha Shimada

Samantha Shimada is a masters of social work student at the University of Utah. Sam moved to Salt Lake City four years ago to attend the University of Utah for her undergraduate studies. She completed her undergraduate studies in recreational therapy and psychology. During her time in Salt Lake City, Sam has become a personal trainer and group fitness instructor in addition to teaching people with disabilities to ski at the National Ability Center in Park City.

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