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Outdated Beliefs Are Keeping Americans From Shaping Up

Washington, DC; June 1, 1995 -- Surrender your remote control, get on your feet, and think of small ways to get your body moving! This simple advice from Dr. C. Everett Koop, the former U.S. Surgeon General, is based on new thinking within the public health community that any bodily movement -- such as walking and taking the stairs -- counts in terms of achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.

But a new consumer poll commissioned by Dr. Koop's Shape Up America! campaign finds that the American public isn't getting this message. Rather, the survey reveals that many people are "couch potatoes" because of an outdated belief that physical activity requires a significant time commitment to be effective. At the same time, many Americans equate physical activity with high intensity "exercise," overlooking the health benefits of moderate activity that comes with walking and doing household tasks.

"Today, the biggest challenge isn't convincing Americans about the value of exercise; it's letting people know that physical activity is something everyone can do. We've got to get the message across loud and clear that moving more throughout the day is all that's required to start shaping up" said Dr. Koop.

Conducted by Yankelovich Partners, Inc., the survey of 1,000 adults reveals that the major obstacles to being more physically active are lack of time (47 percent) and not having enough discipline (24 percent). In addition, the survey finds that the majority of Americans have a number of outdated views about physical activity, believing that to be effective, exercise must:

While exercising at these levels of intensity leads to cardiovascular fitness, new research now finds that more moderate activity also provides important health benefits. This moderate level of intensity is associated with a number of activities that may not raise a sweat, such as walking, dancing, vacuuming and gardening.

James M. Rippe, M.D., Associate Professor of Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine and a member of the Shape Up America! advisory committee, explains the problem this way: "Many people think they need to have sweat running down their brow and be out of breath in order to get health benefits. These individuals have turned physical activity into a grim experience rather than the pleasant part of everyday life it should be."

Equally, important, yet not well understood by the general public, are new research findings about the value of intermittent physical activity. According to these new findings, exercising for a total of 30 minutes a day with several breaks in between also increases calorie expenditure and can be an option for those who cannot fit 30 minutes of sustained activity into their schedules.

According to Steven Blair, P.E.D., Director of the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research and an advisor to the Shape Up America! campaign, "While it was once thought that sustained activity was needed to have a health benefit, increasing evidence now suggests that accumulating 30 minutes of activity over the course of the day also increases caloric expenditure and can be an option for those who cannot fit 30 minutes of sustained activity into their schedules."

A positive step, according to the survey, is that Americans are beginning to change their definitions of exercise to include common activities like walking and dancing. When asked to identify activities that count as physical exercise, 87 percent of the women surveyed agreed that taking the stairs at work qualifies. Likewise, the majority of women agreed that gardening counts as beneficial exercise (78 percent), along with vacuuming carpets (71 percent) and walking to and from the mailbox (63 percent). The majority of the men surveyed also agreed with these statements but to a lesser degree.

But, unfortunately, the survey finds a general attitude of complacency about children's activity levels -- even though children's obesity rates are at record levels. While there has been a major drop in enrollment in school physical education programs in this country, over two-thirds of American parents -- 68 percent -- say they are satisfied with the amount of exercise that their children are getting from these school P.E. programs.

When asked how much time during the week their children spend at physical education activities, more than one in four parents -- 28 percent -- say between one and two hours a week. However, 15 percent report that their children receive only between 30 minutes to an hour of physical education activities, and another 6 percent estimate the time spent is less than 30 minutes a week.

"At a time when childhood obesity rates are going up dramatically, there needs to be a renewed sense of urgency on the part of parents about the importance of physical activity to their children's development and better health. This means turning parents into vocal advocates of increased funding for physical education programs that will give children the skills, knowledge, and motivation to be physically active," Dr. Koop said.

The survey further finds that adults give themselves mixed reviews when it comes to assessing their fitness levels. While 58 percent admit to being heavier than they should be, most -- 77 percent -- still describe themselves as somewhat or very physically fit. However, half of the respondents polled agree with the statement," I never know what the latest advice is about what I should do for exercise," suggesting that significant confusion still exists about ways to increase activity levels.

"The goal is to end the confusion by letting people know that to be less sedentary doesn't have to mean strenuous exercise. It just means moving more. Based on what we know now, everyone can find some time to include more activity in their day. The key is to think of small ways to get the body moving, which will add up to big dividends in terms of better health," Dr. Koop said.

To get Americans up and moving, Dr. Blair urges those who cannot or don't want to visit a health club, jog, or engage in other strenuous activities several times a week to consider a range of options available through moderate intensity activities. The goal is to combine a number of short activities over the course of the day so that they add up to 30 minutes of physical activity, including:

To provide more information on ways to shape up, including increasing physical activity levels, Dr. Koop has published a new guide called On Your Way to Fitness.