Getting exercised over exercise

Our view: Lack of physical activity a costly problem that requires more than a lecture from government

March 28, 2011

For too many Marylanders, basketball is a game to be watched on television, running is the circumstance of their computers and hiking is what the General Assembly does to taxes around this time of year. For the firmly rooted couch potato, exercise is low on the to-do list.

It's a chronic and worsening problem. A recent report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documents, county-by-county, just how bad it has become.

Nationally, about one-quarter of adults do not spend free time being physically active or participating in such things as walking for exercise, golfing, playing tennis or running. That's not people doing it infrequently — it's people doing it not at all.

In Baltimore, the lack of activity is particularly chronic. The CDC report, based on telephone surveys conducted during a five-year period, found that about 30 percent of city adults do not exercise, almost the highest rate of inactivity in the state. Only Somerset County on the lower Eastern Shore exceeded that rate, and only slightly.

The cost of this inactivity is substantial. Federal authorities estimate that it resulted in the need for $147 billion in medical care in 2008 alone, much of it from increased incidence of diabetes, a disease that already afflicts 11.3 percent of adults age 20 and older.

Yet, as much as the U.S. obesity epidemic has been in the news, there continues to be some disconnect with policymakers. Often, obesity is treated as little more than a lifestyle choice, a matter for doctors to take up with patients or, at most, fodder for health department pamphlets and public service announcements.

But the cost to the U.S. economy, and more broadly to society, is too great to take such a leisurely approach to combating obesity. It will require a broader, more coordinated effort that includes rethinking how communities are designed and setting policies that encourage people to become active.

That means spending much more on parks, sidewalks, street lights and other infrastructure that allows more active forms of transportation. Businesses have a role, too, as do health insurers.

Unfortunately, though, the obesity epidemic is inevitably brushed aside as a less pressing concern. In neighboring Virginia, Gov. Robert McDonnell recently vetoed a bill that would have required all elementary and middle school students to participate in at least 150 minutes of physical activity a week, the minimum recommended by the CDC.

Maryland is hardly better. The state does not mandate daily recess in elementary school, and students can graduate from a four-year high school with as little as one year of physical education class.

As school systems face lean budgets in these economically challenging times, the temptation to reduce spending on PE becomes greater. It's a short-sighted view that fails to consider the long-term cost of obesity but is prevalent nonetheless.

Obviously, government can't be hovering over every American, nagging him or her to go jogging in the morning like the trainers on TV's "The Biggest Loser." But it can invest in sidewalks and bike paths that actually make it possible for them to make that choice, and it can inculcate the habit early in life by requiring substantial PE in school.

That's a lot more expensive than lip-service, but the returns could be far greater. Combined with better nutrition, increased physical activity could lead to longer and happier lives for millions of Americans. Few goals are more worthwhile than that.

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