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2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans: What They Mean for Older Adults (excerpt)

In the United States, there has been little success in convincing older adults to adopt physically active lifestyles. The government’s Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans hope to change all that

By Chae-Hee Park, PhD




There is now considerable evidence regarding the benefits of physical activity for all Americans. In addition, we know that people should engage in regular physical activity to improve overall health and to reduce risk of many health problems. Although the initiative Healthy People 2010 included objectives to increase the level of physical activity in Americans over the decade from 2000 to 2010, inactivity among adults and youth remains relatively high, and little progress has been made in meeting activity goals.

The Need for Physical Activity Guidelines

Physical activity guidelines are necessary due to the importance of physical activity to the health of Americans, whose current inactivity puts them at risk for multiple chronic health problems. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) published, for the first time, official government Physical Activity Guidelines (PAG) for Americans in 2008. The PAG provide science-based guidance to help Americans aged 6 and older improve their health through appropriate physical activity. Specifically, the PAG are designed to provide information on the types and amounts of physical activity that provide substantial health benefits.

Development of the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines

In 1995, the DHHS Dietary Guidelines for Americans included advice on physical activity. However, with the development of a firm science base on the health benefits of physical activity, the DHHS began to consider whether separate physical activity guidelines were appropriate. With the help of the Institute of Medicine, the DHHS held a workshop in 2006 to address this concern. The workshop’s report, Adequacy of Evidence for Physical Activity Guidelines Development affirmed that advances in the science of physical activity and health justified the creation of separate physical activity guidelines.

The steps used to develop the PAG were similar to those used for the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee was formed in 2007 by the DHHS. The Advisory Committee conducted an extensive analysis of the scientific information on physical activity and health. The DHHS primarily used the Advisory Committee’s report but also considered comments from the public and government agencies when writing the PAG.

In the PAG, the term “physical activity” generally refers to bodily movement that enhances health. Bodily movement can be divided into two categories:

  • Baseline activity: the light-intensity activities of daily life, such as standing, walking slowly, and lifting lightweight objects. People who do only baseline activity are considered to be inactive. They may do very short episodes of moderate- or vigorous-intensity activity, such as climbing a few flights of stairs, but these episodes aren’t long enough to count toward meeting the PAG.
  • Health-enhancing physical activity: activities adding to baseline activity that produces health benefits. In the PAG, the term “physical activity” generally refers to health-enhancing physical activity. Brisk walking, jumping rope, dancing, lifting weights, climbing on playground equipment at recess, and doing yoga are all examples of physical activity.

Recommendations for Older Adults

Over several years, a substantial body of evidence had accumulated regarding the benefits that come to older adults who participate in regular physical activity. For example, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) in conjunction with the American Heart Association (AHA), recently published physical activity and public health recommendations for older adults (Nelson et al., 2007). The ACSM/AHA recommendations conclude that regular physical activity acts similarly in middle-aged and older adults by reducing risk of cardiovascular disease, thromboembolic stroke, hypertension, type 2 diabetes mellitus, osteoporosis, obesity, colon cancer, breast cancer, anxiety, and depression. Furthermore, the ACSM/AHA recommendations note that among older adult populations, there is substantial evidence that physical activity reduces risk of falls and injuries from falls, prevents or mitigates functional limitations, manages depression and anxiety, prevents or delays cognitive impairment, improves sleep, and is effective therapy for many chronic diseases (Nelson et al., 2007).

In spite of a wealth of evidence about the benefits of physical activity, there has been little success in convincing older adults to adopt physically active lifestyles (American Geriatrics Society, 2001). For example, national data suggest that less than one-third of older individuals engage in regular physical activity, with the proportion meeting recommended guidelines progressively decreasing with advancing age (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2007). Physical inactivity levels are even higher for some subgroups of older adults, for example, in women over 75 years of age, the percentage of sedentary individuals may be as high as 53 percent (Chodzko-Zajko, 2005). The DHHS provided specific recommendations and advice for promoting physical activity among specific segments of the population, including older adults.

A summary of the PAG related to older adults is provided below. This information may be useful to clinicians, health practitioners, and interested members of the public to guide on the types and amount of physical activity for older adults. The PAG recommends that older adults focus on aerobic activities and muscle-strengthening activities. In addition, seniors who are at risk of falling should perform balance training.

To read the entire article, go to Active Aging Today. If you’re not a subscriber, subscribe now.




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