Lowering the Bar

Exercise and diets are to me what antidepressants, statins, insulin and beta-blockers are to a medical doctor. They are my most powerful tools for treating the major chronic diseases. In fact, the research demonstrates that for the leading chronic disorders in the U.S., exercise and nutrition should be the first line of treatment. So when a major study about either of those subjects comes out, I'm usually on it like spandex on a cyclist. Thus, when the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published a report on the prevalence of physical activities among adults in the U.S., I grabbed it. And, at first blush, it paints an amazingly positive picture.

According to this report, between 2001 and 2005, "the prevalence of regular physical activity increased 8.6% among women overall (from 43.0% to 46.7%) and 3.5% among men (from 48.0% to 49.7%)," the study said. In short, almost one-half of all adult males are engaging in regular physical activity.

"Wow," I thought to myself. "That's some incredible progress," and for an all-to-brief moment I glowed with pride at the very small role I have played in that achievement.

But as I thought more about it, these results did not gibe with other epidemiological data. If we are exercising more, why is heart disease still so prevalent? And diabetes? And, for that matter, obesity, where the U.S. population hovers around the 35% mark? If we were, in fact, exercising more, there would be less of each of those diseases; instead, they have increased, dramatically so. Nor is this data consistent with my personal, albeit anecdotal, observations.

So I dug a little bit further. And found, to my horror, what the researchers were defining as "regular physical activity."

According to this study, regular physical activity includes doing "anything that causes some increase in breathing or heart rate" for 10 minutes once per week. Among the examples given were vacuuming. Now, I'm not one for derogating the value, or difficulty, of housecleaning. But I just cannot wrap my mind around the idea that 10 minutes of vacuuming a week could be considered "regular physical activity."

I mean, Holy Cow! By that standard, getting up off the couch during a commercial to get another bag of Doritos qualifies as "regular physical activity" if you have to go upstairs to the pantry to do it!

Vigorous physical activity, according to the study, was self-referentially defined as "10 minutes of vigorous activity" the report said, "such as...heavy yard work."

I must -- must! -- put forward the argument that, when raking leaves has become "vigorous physical activity," something has gone very, very wrong in our perception of things.

There are other problems with the study which limit its utility, but to me, the distorted view of what constitutes physical activity sufficient enough to positively influence health overrides every other consideration.

If we have lowered the bar that far, simply in order to pat ourselves on our overfed backs, then it makes me wonder if this country will ever get back on its feet again health-wise, so to speak.

Based on this superficially reassuring study -- I'm not very optimistic.