80% of Americans Don’t Get Enough Exercise

May 10th, 2013 By Steven Knope, MD

According to a recent CDC report, only 1 in 5 Americans get enough exercise! Shocking! And like most of you, I can’t wait to read the next report that documents how many of us fail to eat the number of recommended servings of broccoli each week.

As most of you know, there are few things I enjoy more than exercise. However, I sure don’t do it because the government tells me to do it. I also don’t exercise for my health. As far as I know, I’m going to die someday just like everybody else. I exercise because it just feels good to be strong. If I didn’t enjoy the results, I would be like the other 80% of the population that has decided that the price is just too high.

The truth is that most people don’t exercise because it is not fun. Many have never had the experience of feeling really strong and fit. Perhaps they were never exposed to a strong, inspiring role model who encouraged them to test their physical limits. Most people have not had the kind of coaching that actually gets results.

The History of Exercise Recommendations
I was a member of the editorial board for the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health & Fitness Journal. I reviewed and edited exercise articles written for the public. I went to all the conferences and listened to the experts wring their hands about the death and disease caused by our sedentary lifestyle. The experts thought the problem could be solved with the proper messaging. Just tell people what to do and they will do it. However, after decades of promoting different fitness messages, it would appear that using words to get people to move is just not very effective.

Twenty years ago, the government had relatively aggressive exercise recommendations for the public. When those recommendations failed to change behavior, the nation’s exercise prescription was dumbed down. The experts even tried changing the definition of exercise, from vigorous activities such as jogging or running to a broad recommendation that every American should try to accumulate 30 minutes of general movement throughout the day, even if it was not continuous activity. Walking, raking leaves, or doing housework suddenly counted as exercise. And even after implementing “Exercise Light,” we have seen obesity rates soar to unprecedented levels, with no real change in our sedentary culture. What is a bureaucrat to do?

The Essence of the Problem
Implicit in all governmental recommendations is the delusion that spending huge sums of tax dollars on public health messaging will change behavior. Newsflash: People are not sedentary because they lack information on the health benefits of exercise. People know that exercise is good for them. However, most people also lead challenging and difficult lives. When they are not working they like to do what is fun. They like to relax. They like to over-eat, over-drink, and do what feels good. Going to a great restaurant and indulging with friends and family is more fun than going to the gym.

And since most people who try strength training never get the results that they want, there is little incentive to keep working at it. As a guy who’s done this for a while, I don’t mind telling you that it is damned hard work!

What Really Gets People Moving?
In my experience, there are two things that have helped to get more of my patients exercising and doing some form of effective strength training:

  1. Stop Telling People to Exercise: After years of repeatedly advising people to exercise, I finally stopped nagging my patients. I now make my recommendations once. I then sit back and see how my message was received. In my experience, pushing people makes them less inclined to change their behavior. As a result of this change in approach, I’ve watched people whom I never thought would exercise start hitting the gym – and actually liking it!
  2. Train the Willing: Getting strong and training your body is no different than training your mind. You need a teacher or a good coach. This is why I have a gym in my office and a great trainer, Dennis Moore. I train with Dennis because I can’t get the results I want on my own. When someone is in a teachable moment and they want to get stronger, I refer them to a professional.

So changing the lack of strength and fitness of the American people is a paradox of sorts. The more you tell people to exercise and eat well, the more they will push back. When they are ready – when they themselves become motivated to get stronger – you have an opportunity to give them the tools they will need for success.

You also have to be honest with people. You have to tell them that this will be challenging. You explain that they will earn every ounce of muscle that they build, but they will also have someone to help them at every step along the way. If they are overweight, they will have to learn to tolerate being just a little bit hungry all the time. This is the price of the journey and nature offers no discounts.

You have to tell people that once they are fit and strong, they will not be able to revert to their old habits. Strength and fitness are perishable commodities. And in the end, if you can get 20% of the population to sign up for this masochistic journey to strength and fitness, you should be pretty pleased with your results. In fact, as I talk about this subject, that big screen TV and an ice cold beer are starting to sound pretty good to me. Maybe I’ll just join the 80%. To hell with it!


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