Loretta DiPietro

Photo by The George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.

As the 2016 Summer Olympics continue in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, physical inactivity and sedentary lifestyles are on the rise here at home. A study published in The Lancet last month continues a series of studies, begun in the journal in 2012, on physical inactivity and its links to risk of heart disease, diabetes and certain types of cancer. Findings from this research have concluded that illnesses associated with physical inactivity are the cause of more than five million deaths per year.

Loretta DiPietro, PhD, chair of exercise science and nutrition studies at The George Washington University Milken Institute Scof Public Health and a member of the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee, provided commentary on the study and spoke to Public Health Newswire about the health implications of physical inactivity in America.

Q: Why is it important to look at inactivity as a pandemic rather than as a risk factor or a health issue? 

A: Approximately 30 percent of adults and 80 percent of adolescents worldwide do not meet the WHO Guidelines for physical activity – 150 min of moderate-intensity activity per week for adults and 60 min of moderate-to-vigorous activity per DAY in children. Imagine if the prevalence of cigarette smoking were this high!

Q: What are some trends or recent findings about the state of Americans’ health in relation to physical inactivity or obesity?

A: About 9 percent of global mortality per year can be attributed to physical inactivity – which is the same for smoking. That is an even greater number than the 5 percent of global mortality attributed to obesity.

Physical activity of low-, moderate- or higher-intensity has demonstrated a beneficial relation to almost every chronic disease through its potent ability to prevent or to improve risk factors, including obesity, for these diseases.

Q: What can be done – from a public health standpoint – to encourage people who are sedentary to change their habits and become more active? 

A: Public policies for helping people of all ages to achieve an active lifestyle need to become a national priority. Many countries around the globe – including the US – have a National Physical Activity Plan; however, many of these plans have yet to be set in motion. We have national nutrition policies in place and now it is time to do the same with regard to physical activity – within the settings of schools, communities and workplaces.

Examples of such policy might be the mandatory restating of physical education as part of the core curriculum in schools. These policies can include improved community design, like adequate green space and sidewalk connectivity, or building design that makes the default choice the active choice; and workplaces that allow for and encourage workers to have standing desks or 30-minute activity breaks during the day.

Q: Do you think the Olympics, especially this year’s Summer Games, have any effect on activity rates in Americans? Will the games encourage people to be more active?

Surveillance data following the 2012 London Olympics suggest that these Games had little effect on population levels of physical activity in the areas close to them. U.S. surveillance data sometimes show a slight blip in the reporting of physical activity during Olympic years; however, it is difficult to know if that is real because people may report more activity without actually doing more activity.