Physical Activity: We All Can and Must Do More

Health and Well-Being Matter is the monthly blog of the Director of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

Physical activity is fundamental to overall health and well-being, yet woefully neglected in most of our daily lives. Along with maintaining good nutrition and emotional health, incorporating regular physical activity can help to prevent multiple chronic diseases and improve the odds of better outcomes should you become ill from various conditions.

According to the most recent data from the National Health Interview Survey (2018), only 27.6 percent of men and 20.8 percent of women in the U.S. report sufficient activity to meet the relevant aerobic and muscle-strengthening guidelines in the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. The latest iteration of the Guidelines cites related impacts – in dollars and deaths – indicating “about $117 billion in annual health care costs and about 10 percent of premature mortality are associated with inadequate physical activity, alone.” Of note, these data and analyses predate the COVID-19 pandemic and its deleterious impact on physical activity across the nation.

Alarmingly but perhaps not surprisingly, recent studies indicate that physical activity levels for some populations have dropped even further during the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent summary of findings published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that people who do little or no physical activity are more likely to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19 than those who are more physically active.

With these few quick facts in mind, quite possibly the most important message in this era of diminishing physical activity is this: As practitioners, public health professionals, and advocates for better health, we all can do more and we must do more.

Any discussion of health promotion or disease prevention strategies must reflect on the importance of physical activity. It is that elemental. The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, numerous other federal agencies, state and local government entities, tribal groups, for-profit and nonprofit organizations outside government, medical professionals, public health officials, and countless others base our missions – in whole or part – on advancing the imperative of increasing opportunities for physical activity and active living. This includes what physical activity means to our overall wellness and resilience – and how to go about obtaining its benefits.

Despite the emphasis in messages regarding the benefits of physical activity, our nation – on average – isn’t adopting a routine that prioritizes being more physically active. This begs the questions:

A good starting point for all advocates for better health to consider is in revisiting the basics. Familiarize yourself with the Physical Activity Guidelines, and learn how to talk about them in culturally sensitive ways through the Move Your Way® communication campaign. You can use Move Your Way’s posters, factsheets, videos, and online tools to promote physical activity to your patients and audiences. Adding further focus on the health benefits of physical activity, the nation’s 10-year health plan for this decade – Healthy People 2030 – sets bold goals for increasing physical activity among all Americans, across all stages of life. Browse the Healthy People 2030 physical activity objectives to find ones that align with priorities for your communities.

The Physical Activity Guidelines recommend that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (anything that gets your heart beating faster) each week and at least 2 days per week of muscle-strengthening activity (anything that makes your muscles work harder than usual).

Youth need 60 minutes or more of physical activity each day, including moderate and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity as well as muscle- and bone-strengthening activity. Preschool-aged children ages 3 to 5 years need to be active throughout the day – with adult caregivers encouraging active play – to enhance growth and development.

Striving toward these goals and then continuing to get physical activity, in any safe way, contributes to better health outcomes – both immediately and over the long term.

Inequities in social determinants of health – the conditions in the environments where people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age – have a profound impact on people’s health, well-being, and quality of life, including their opportunities to be physically active. Understanding the social context of the people you care for and serve is the first step toward helping them find ways to be more active that match their needs and address their unique circumstances.

Be ready to be creative as you encourage the public, your loved ones, or your patients to move their way. Remember that all sorts of activities count. Even things that don’t feel like exercise. For added inspiration, ideas, and new ways to help those you serve and care for get active, check out and share the Move Your Way Activity Planner.

One key concept that’s important to note is that even small amounts of physical activity can lead to benefits – some immediately – and that is true at any age. A single session of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, which raises your heart rate a bit, can improve your mood, reduce stress, and improve sleep. Months or years of more regular physical activity can contribute to a reduced risk of depression, heart disease, several types of cancer, dementia, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.

Finally, the benefits that people realize through their effort to be more physically active shouldn’t be complicated to understand. There is no need to understand physiology to grasp the essential point: moving more and sitting less is good for your health and well-being.

While there’s urgency in this message, a measured approach is called for in conveying the message. Support people being active at their own pace and in their own way. Remind them to start slowly and work their way toward more vigorous activity and greater fitness. Don’t bother with the term “exercise.” That word can be off-putting to many people who think there must be structure to the way you add physical activity to your routine. The truth is that adding small amounts of physical activity into everyday activities, like taking the stairs or wheelchair ramp instead of the elevator or parking further away from the entrance to the store, you are being more physically active and making a difference in your health and well-being.

I’ll add that May is an excellent time to promote physical activity. Throughout the month, we’ll be observing National Physical Fitness & Sports Month. Check out these resources and messages on to help you promote this observance and the concepts of increased physical activity.

In addition, the HHS Office of Population Affairs will be placing a special focus on encouraging physical activity and healthy decision-making for youth during the week of May 16 as part of the new National Adolescent Health Month observance.

As the proverb says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” It’s our job to encourage people to take that first step toward a more physically active life, and then another, and then another. While there may be challenges, even after the first step they’ll be able to experience and enjoy the health benefits that they accumulate as they progress in their own journey.  Perhaps, with a little support and in time, they’ll be ready for the next thousand miles after that.

Yours in health,

Paul Reed, MD
Rear Admiral, U.S. Public Health Service
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health
Director, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion

In Officio Salutis

Categories: Blog, Spotlight