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CDC researcher: Physical activity one of the most important ways to improve health

U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Sabrina Elgammal.
Whether it is yoga, walking, running or something else, the CDC says any exercise is better than none.

With much discussion on how sedentary Americans are in the present society, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have created guidelines for activity, all with the message that any exercise is better than none at all.

Dr. John D. Omura, who works in the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity at the CDC in the Physical Activity and Health Branch, spoke with “Take Care” about the CDC and his research. He has helped author several studies relating to exercise, including “Walking as an Opportunity for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention,” which he hopes will encourage more Americans to stay active.

“Being physically active is one of the most important things that people of all ages can do to improve their health,” Omura said.

According to recent CDC data, in terms of the physical activity levels of Americans, 54% of adults are doing enough aerobic activity to meet CDC guidelines -- an increase of over 10% since 2008 -- while 26% of teens are meeting guidelines. The CDC recently published its second edition of Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, which outlines recommendations for how to boost those numbers.

"Some physical activity is better than none. ... Adults who really sit less and do any amount of physical activity gain some health benefits."

Being physically active imparts numerous health benefits, Omura said. It fosters normal growth and development, makes people feel, function and sleep better and, importantly, reduces the risk many chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, some cancers and depression.

The CDC breaks its physical activity guidelines into three basic age groups: preschool-age children (ages 3 to 5), adolescents (ages 6 to 17) and adults (ages 18 and older).

Preschool guidelines say those children should be physically active throughout the day. Adolescent guidelines say those children should engage in at least one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day and in muscle and bone-strengthening activity at least three days per week.

Adult guidelines are at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous intensity activity per week, with muscle-strengthening activity three days per week. Omura said that, when it comes to adults, it is ultimately important to be active, period.

“Some physical activity is better than none,” he said. “Adults who really sit less and do any amount of physical activity gain some health benefits.”

CDC’s guidelines also make special mention of specific populations that may have different recommendations, like older adults and pregnant women.

Recent trends are hard to discern due to changes in how the data has been measured over the last decade, Omura said, but in general, physical activity in adults has been steadily increasing, while activity in children and adolescents has plateaued.

“Those transitions are across the lifespan are really important for us to think about in terms of how we continue to encourage people to be active as they transition into different stages of life,” he said.

In addition, the data shows that people who live in urban areas are more active than those in rural areas, which Omura said can be partially explained by walking being easier in cities. Omura said the most common form of aerobic physical activity in America is walking, mostly because nearly everyone can engage in it to at least some degree.

“We’re really encouraged by that because walking is a great way to start and maintain an active lifestyle,” he said. “It’s easy. There’s really few barriers to getting involved in walking. … It’s an easy way to integrate physical activity into your daily routine.”

Those benefits are why Omura said communities like nursing homes and other organizations should encourage their members to walk on a regular basis.

Other methods that can push people to exercise like they should include modern fitness technology like Fitbits and cell phone apps. Omura said devices that track data like steps can encourage users to be more active.

“We’re really excited about steps and the use of technology in general,” Omura said. “The technology piece has really been shown to be effective at helping people become more active.”

Omura stressed that the devices, however, cannot work by themselves; they have to be paired with other behavior changes to have a beneficial effect on physical health.

The CDC is trying to promote activity across the country with numerous efforts, including Active People, Healthy Nation, a mutli-sector program that seeks to outline ways to improve physical activity. Omura and others are working with a variety of partners at the local, state and national level to implement a comprehensive approach to increasing activity in the country, and it is all to show just how important staying active is.