National Physical Fitness and Sports Month: More Important Today Than Ever

By Helen Durkin, JD, Executive Vice President of Public Policy, International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA)

National Physical Fitness and Sports Month is as relevant today as it was back in 1983 when President Ronald Reagan signed the very first proclamation making May the month to get moving.

It matters even more now.

Three decades and two generations since that initial signing, America has become entrenched in a state of technological advancement where movement has been largely engineered out of daily living. Sedentary activities permeate our work, educational, and social lives. And as a nation, we’re feeling acutely the physical and fiscal consequences of too-little exercise. Indeed, today’s epidemic rates of obesity, diabetes, and unbridled spending on preventable chronic diseases all link back in some way to the simple fact that we just don’t move enough.

To fathom the benefits that regular exercise brings, we don’t need to dig deep. After all, regular physical activity is a well-established mainstay of primary prevention. By primary prevention, I mean basic lifestyle behaviors that stop preventable chronic diseases before they start. Specifically, the four key pillars of primary prevention include: (i) regular exercise; (ii) sound nutrition; (iii) the avoidance of tobacco, alcohol, and other controlled substances; and (iv) stress management. Primary prevention is so influential to health outcomes, in fact, that if everyone followed these low-cost behaviors, at least 80 percent of all heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes—along with 40 percent of cancer—would be prevented.

Regular exercise, in and of itself, yields tremendous benefits. In fact, a new study just determined that physical activity is so important to a woman’s heart health that when a woman over 30 does not exercise, she increases her risk of heart disease even more than if she smoked, were obese, or had high blood pressure. When you consider that heart disease is the leading cause of death in women, and that coronary heart disease costs the United States $108.9 billion each year in healthcare services, medications, and lost productivity, you begin to realize just how much clout exercise really carries.

But that’s not all. Other research suggests that exercise also may help stave off Alzheimer’s disease. This includes a new study that found that moderate physical activity reduces hippocampal atrophy in the brains of older adults who have a genetic risk for developing Alzheimer's. According to the researchers, the hippocampus is critical for the formation of episodic memories—or more simply put, memories of past personal experiences. Now that’s important stuff, especially given the rate at which Americans are developing Alzheimer’s—one new case every 67 seconds; and that Alzheimer’s disease is now the most expensive condition in the nation. In 2014 alone, says the Alzheimer’s Association, the direct costs to American society of caring for those with Alzheimer's will total an estimated $214 billion, including $150 billion in costs to Medicare and Medicaid.

Let’s not forget the preventive power that exercise holds over type 2 diabetes. That’s the type that accounts for about 90% to 95% of all diagnosed cases, and the type that is largely preventable. In fact, research has shown that 30 minutes a day of moderate- or high-level physical activity is an effective and safe way to prevent type 2 diabetes in all populations. It’s worth noting, too, that the total annual costs of diagnosed diabetes is now up to an estimated $245 billion, and that we also know that exercise helps manage type 2 diabetes for the millions who already have it.

Yes. We still desperately need Physical Fitness and Sports Month as a focal point for raising awareness of the preventive power of exercise. But we can’t stop there. We must encourage and support physically active lifestyles throughout the year.

After all, exercise truly is the most cost-effective medicine we have for preserving health and dodging avoidable chronic diseases. With chronic conditions now costing $2 trillion or more in health spending each year, it really is worth breaking a sweat.