By Dr. Clif Cleaveland
Exercise tops the list of many New Year's resolutions.
The parking lot of Chattanooga's downtown YMCA, where I do my regular sweating, is typically packed for the first few weeks of each year. By mid-February it returns to normal as resolutions fade.
A recently released report on exercise by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services should stimulate us to keep our resolution to exercise regularly. The report, "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans," can be accessed at www.health.gov/PAGuidelines. It is valuable reading for individuals, parents, policymakers and school boards. Following the report's advice will improve the health of millions of Americans and save countless lives.
Exercise programs must begin in childhood. Inactive children become inactive, less healthy adults. The expert panel who produced the report lists these benefits for children:
* Improved cardiac, respiratory, and muscular fitness.
* Better bone strength.
* Better cardiac and metabolic markers such as blood glucose and lipid levels.
* Reduced symptoms of depression.
For children and adolescents, the panel advise a minimum of one hour daily of moderate to vigorous activity. Vigorous activity includes running, jumping rope, basketball, soccer and bike-riding. Exercise should be vigorous at least three times weekly. Muscle and bone-strengthening exercises should be included in the weekly schedule.
Unfortunately, participation in regular physical exercise drops off sharply for teens, when many schools drop physical education classes and many teens succumb to the attractions of video games and hanging out.
The role of parents, grandparents and guardians in setting examples of active lifestyles is critical if children are to adopt exercise as a regular component of their lives. Active family outings such as walks, swims and basketball shoot-arounds drive home this message.
For adults, strong evidence supports the value of exercise in substantially reducing the risk of premature death. Data from peer-reviewed studies show benefits across age, ethnic and racial boundaries. These include significant reductions in the risks for:
* High blood pressure, cardiac disease, and stroke.
* Type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes.
* Breast and colon cancer.
Older adults benefit from improvement in sleep patterns, thinking, equilibrium and in carrying out activities of daily living. Risks for hip fractures and lung and uterine cancers decline.
The panel recommends that each week adults devote either two and a half hours to moderate exercise (brisk walking, ballroom dancing, water aerobics, bike-riding, gardening) or one and a quarter hours of vigorous exercise (race-walking, swimming laps, hiking, rope-jumping, aerobic exercises).
An episode of exercise should last at least 10 minutes. Workouts should include twice weekly muscle-strengthening exercises, such as weight-training, sit-ups, push-ups and carrying heavy loads.
Authors of the guideline found that medical benefits increased with the frequency, duration and intensity of exercise beyond the recommended minimum levels. Regular exercise need not be a budget buster. A comfortable pair of walking shoes, a jump rope and simple arm weights provide an affordable start.
Older adults should exercise within their physical capacities. Adults who have long been inactive or who have chronic health conditions should plan their routines with the advice of their health-care providers.
I was a gawky, uncoordinated boy who probably would never have learned to lace his shoes if Velcro had been available in my childhood. The public schools that I attended in Georgia and South Carolina provided active, organized play periods in elementary school.
From junior high through high school I had physical education classes three times weekly. In addition to graded exercises and running laps, I was taught how to play a variety of team sports that I could subsequently enjoy in college, where physical education was required for my first two years. I played intramural sports year-round.
Early lessons stuck, and I have been physically active on a regular basis ever since. A vigorous program of physical education is a necessary component of middle and high school curricula. Student and subsequent adult health depends upon it.
Share with me your fitness routines.
E-mail Clif Cleaveland at firstname.lastname@example.org.