We must change our view of activity

"If exercise could be packed in a pill, it would be the most widely prescribed and beneficial medication in the nation." This was a quote from Robert Butler, a geriatric physician with the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

The statement says many different things about our society and its view on exercise. It is a great example about the importance of exercise to people's health, the importance the medical community places on exercise and, finally, the attitude society has about exercise and activity.

Most Americans would prefer to take medications to improve their health over putting in the time and effort that exercise requires. Therefore, we are in need of a cultural shift in the way we perceive movement so that exercise and physical activity are considered the norm rather than the exception. Society knows that exercise is important, but statistics indicate that many people still do not get enough movement each and every day to see health benefits.

We have developed, refined and altered our everyday living so that the amount of movement that takes place during the course of a day is much less than even 20 years ago. We do not have as many manual labor jobs that require as much muscle activity. Energy-saving devices such as riding lawn mowers, cordless phones and leaf blowers have been developed that help around the house.

Technology has provided us with some advances that are quite amazing both from a productivity standpoint and simply as entertainment value. Motorized vehicles have given us the freedom to travel great distances, run errands on a moment's notice and stay warm and dry wherever we go. Television has provided us with entertainment by offering hundreds of different channels covering everything from cooking classes to sports to learning about history.

It is estimated that 99 percent of houses have at least one television. Nearly 66 percent of the American public has three TVs, with the average American watching more than four hours per day. That works out to 28 hours per week or two months per year of watching TV.

If we add time on the computer, Americans spend more than 13 hours a week on home computers and 28 hours per week at work. Therefore TV and computers alone can account for more than 41 hours per week of inactive time.

Being active provides us with an opportunity to improve our health by decreasing our weight, lowering our blood pressure, and decreasing stress levels as well as many other tangible benefits.

Signs reminding people to use the stairs rather than the elevator, community-wide campaigns, school physical education programs, individualized exercise routines, social support networks and increased access to activity areas such as gyms or walking programs have all been shown to increase a community's physical activity. If we truly are interested in containing health care costs and improving the health of Americans, we need to figure out ways to get more activity in our daily lives by taking a community-based approach.

Additional parks and sidewalks, safer neighborhoods and bike-friendly roads will go a long way toward promoting more activity. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt has said "Good health - wellness - doesn't just happen. Wellness has to be a habit. Changing the culture from one of treating sickness to staying healthy calls for small steps and good choices to be made each and every day."

During this holiday season, make a commitment to yourself to improve your health by incorporating more activity into your daily life.

Mike McCusker is an exercise physiologist and supervisor of the fitness center at Providence St. Peter Hospital.