About 36% of all U.S. adults do not exercise during their leisure time, according to research from Florida Atlantic University. That’s a sobering statistic, especially considering the well-known health risks that arise from physical inactivity.

Many common health conditions, including deadly ones, have been linked to a sedentary lifestyle. That includes conditions like back pain, but also more serious ones like heart disease, which is the nation’s top cause of death.

The good news is that this lifestyle behavior is highly modifiable, and taking just a few more steps each day can make a profound difference in your overall level of health.

Increasing physical activity can also help reduce your risk of developing diabetes, colon cancer, osteoporosis-related bone fractures, and hypertension, the Florida researchers said. Physical inactivity even accounts for 5% of breast cancer cases, they added. The compounded effects are gigantic. The researchers said the nation’s sedentary lifestyles account for about 2.4% of all healthcare costs, amounting to $24 billion annually.

Physical inactivity costs the nation $24 million annually and is directly attributable to a large percentage of deaths.

Here’s some good news: walking briskly for 20 minutes each day reduces the risk of heart attack by 30-40%, report the Florida researchers. Dr. Charles H. Hennekens says:

“Unfortunately, most Americans prefer prescription of pills to proscription of harmful lifestyles such as physical inactivity…In general, any (medicine) should be an adjunct, not an alternative, to therapeutic lifestyle changes such as increasing levels of physical activity.”

Other goods news is that exercise is free and comes without harmful side effects, like many pharmaceuticals.

Experts attribute nation’s increase of deadly belly fat to less exercise, not added calories.

Physical inactivity is likely to blame for expanding waistlines in the U.S., according to research from The American Journal of Medicine. Health experts frequently discuss calorie reduction as a way to lose weight, and while eating nutritious food is important, increasing physical activity may be even more important for slimming the belly.

Belly fat is considered especially dangerous because deep, subcutaneous fat can surround the internal organs and impair their ability to function at optimal levels. Belly fat is so lethal that it’s considered an “independent indicator of mortality,” even among people with healthy body weights, researchers said.

The drop-off in physical activity is especially prevalent among young women aged 18 to 39, researchers said. From 1994 to 2010, the number of women in that age group who don’t exercise at all jumped from 19% to nearly 52%. All the while, waistlines have expanded while nutritional habits have not changed significantly. Dr. Uri Ladabuam says:

“The prevalence of abdominal obesity has increased among normal-weight women and overweight women and men.”

Just 30 minutes of exercise six days each week cuts early death risk by 40%.

The misconception is rampant that people must spend hours at the gym to be healthy or that health is about having the perfect body, but those goals, while motivating for some people, actually keep the majority of people from feeling their best.

Health isn’t about being a certain size or looking a certain way, but building more physical activity into your day. You can hit the gym six days each week and maybe you won’t attain the body type you deem “perfect,” but if you exercise consistently, you’ll feel great and probably lose a couple pounds as a bonus.

The dramatic effects of reducing physical inactivity are, for elderly men, as powerful as giving up smoking, according to research from the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The researchers found that just 30 minutes each day, six days each week reduces the risk of early death by 40%.

Although a higher benefit was found among those who participated in more rigorous activities like competitive sports, protective benefits were also conferred by lighter exercise like going to the gym.

Physical inactivity is linked to lower mental capacity among older adults.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have discovered that physically fit people have more brain activity while at rest. Earlier research had revealed that people who exercise regularly also tend to have healthier brains, with larger volume and more white matter.

This amplified brain activity confers enhanced cognition. The study shows that in the future, it may be possible to determine the level of one’s physical fitness by imaging their brain.

Standardizing residents’ access to health classes and health counseling could cut health care costs.

Canadian researchers from the University of Waterloo have found that offering people standardized services to help them reduce physical inactivity could lower the approximately $7 billion the country spends on health care related to sedentary lifestyles.

The services vary and range from simple efforts like organizing informal walking groups to organizing aerobics classes or offering people health coaching. Researcher Cameron Moore says:

“Physical activity services are certainly part of the broader health promotion picture, but they are unique in their cost-effectiveness and ability to improve health and well-being for all patients, not just those with a chronic condition.”

Since most people first access health care through their primary care provider, researchers said that makes an excellent starting point for talking with patients about the benefits of exercise. It would also be a great place to teach patients how to exercise.

Simple initiatives like hiring exercise specialists to work with patients and help them make needed lifestyle changes could save lives and reduce health care costs, researchers said.

In Ontario, 67 family health teams receive money to pay for these health promotion initiatives, although researchers didn’t examine how this model could translate into the U.S. health care system, which doesn’t have the same standardization of care.

As medicine moves more towards inter-disciplinary care, with doctors and health experts from various fields communicating about the patients in their care, these health promotion roles could take on greater importance while guiding patients through these sometimes difficult, but necessary changes.

Health counselors could help patients better adhere to exercise programs and changes in diet, improving health outcomes and reducing costs.

Why do you think physical inactivity is on the rise?

Image via Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr

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