Let’s Get Physical: Why Exercise Matters in Public Policy

Exercise. It’s a word that pops up a lot in fitness columns, on lifestyle websites and in popular health magazines — but not so much in public policy.

Yet, it should.

Whether or not Americans exercise regularly has a phenomenal impact on our nation. It is, in fact, an underappreciated nucleus for a strong America.

Consider these facts:

— Regular exercise can lighten the burden of chronic disease on our health care system. Chronic diseases — which are largely preventable with adequate physical activity, a healthy diet and other lifestyle factors — will cost America, on average, a projected $2 trillion in medical costs each year between 2016 and 2030. More to the point, roughly $117 billion in annual direct health care expenditures are associated with inadequate levels of physical activity.

— Regular exercise among U.S. workers can boost our economy — via the bottom line of employers. Physical activity positively influences worker productivity, job performance, well-being, concentration, work relationships, engagement and resilience to stress,  evidence shows. It also boosts creativity and problem-solving. Equally, obesity — which goes hand-in-hand with daily living habits — poses its own issues. Injuries occur 25 to 68 percent more often among overweight and obese workers. And obesity costs U.S. companies $4.3 billion in absenteeism, about $506 per obese worker in lower productivity each year.

— Regular exercise can be effective in chronic pain management — so opioids can be avoided when possible — and is a helpful adjunct in treating addiction. Exercise therapy can reduce pain and improve function for knee and hip osteoarthritis and lower back pain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And for fibromyalgia, it can improve symptoms, physical function and well-being. Exercise also can help ease withdrawal symptoms, increase abstinence and reduce anxiety and depression for people with substance use disorders, research shows.

— Regular exercise nurtures growing children physically, mentally and emotionally — helping our youth become productive, well-adjusted and contributing members of society. Exercise in childhood and the growing years strengthens our kids and helps reduce their risk for various chronic diseases later in life. But it also boosts confidence, self-esteem, enthusiasm, well-being and even academic performance — all while helping them learn important life skills and benefiting their emotional development and happiness.

— Regular exercise in adolescence is tied to our national security, ensuring that we have enough volunteer recruits who can qualify. The effects of sedentary lifestyles and related obesity have a tremendous impact on our nation’s military. In fact, nearly a third of American youth, 17 to 24 years old, cannot qualify for military service due to obesity. And the military is facing an unprecedented rise in the type of injuries that stems, in part, from poor nutrition and lack of physical activity in adolescence, according to a report by Mission: Readiness. In fact, there were 72 percent more medical evacuations from Afghanistan and Iraq to Germany for stress fractures, serious sprains and other similar injuries than for combat wounds, according to Mission: Readiness.

— Regular exercise helps our first responders stay fit, which is essential for keeping our nation safe, especially in times of emergency. Overweight, obesity and other cardiovascular risk factors threaten our nation’s first responders — firefighters, police and emergency medical services workers. Regular exercise, starting at an early age, helps ensure that we have a pool of fit recruits who are able to endure these physically strenuous and critically important jobs.

— Regular exercise plays an essential role in improving population health and the movement toward accountable care and accountable health communities. As we seek to improve our health care system, thought leaders are increasingly looking at how different societal sectors can work together to improve the health of communities and address social determinants of health. When we improve access to exercise for all citizens, it has a positive impact on the overall health of communities — and ultimately on our nation.

On May 10, the National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity hosted a briefing on Capitol Hill to spotlight the role exercise plays in America’s health and world standing — and what Congress can do to help create a culture of health. “Creating an Active America Together” came during National Physical Fitness and Sports Month, and just days after an all-day workshop at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to grapple with the challenge of obesity and overweight in the armed forces.

The event also came several months in advance of the release of the new Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. The guidelines, which were originally released in 2008, provide a physical activity road map for Americans so their daily lifestyle behaviors can add up to long-term health benefits and improved quality of life. As important, they’re a formal recognition of the importance of regular exercise to the strength of our nation.

There is no shortage of evidence on the positive effects of exercise — just a shortage of public policy attention on it. We’re in a time when America needs to care for itself in the most holistic of ways.

I urge all members of Congress to recognize the sustaining role that regular physical activity plays in keeping us physically, mentally, militarily and economically strong. Bring exercise into the conversation as you address the challenges we face. And implement public policies that not only promote exercise, but also make it an easy choice and an achievable way of life for every American.


Helen Durkin, JD, is executive vice president of public policy for the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association and president-elect for the National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity.

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