“Exercise Lite” – Learn To Live With It

Soon after writing last month’s editorial on “Exercise Lite,” I departed for the American College of Sports Medicine’s annual meeting in Minneapolis. The first question on my mind was: What will be ACSM’s future position on the frequency, duration and intensity of exercise recommended to the American public?

I was expecting some accommodation of its position to the findings of the Harvard Alumni Health Study. As reported in last month’s editorial, recent analysis of that data for the relationship between exercise intensity and longevity found “that vigorous activity was associated with longevity, but nonvigorous activity was not associated with longer life, even when the same amount of energy was expended.” It would make sense, I thought, to recommend that people get moving and work up to the effective 6 METs intensity level as soon as safe and achievable.

What I found is that ACSM is as committed as ever to the light-to-moderate exercise prescription. Moreover, this will be highly publicized to the American people over the next few years by a coalition of government, private and business entities. The coalition’s efforts may be the largest-ever “initiative to get Americans off the couch.” Several sessions at the ACSM meeting indicated how deep and wide the commitment is to the lower end of exercise duration and intensity.

The press conference: On Wednesday, May 31, a standing-room-only press conference announced the formation of the National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity (NCPPA). The initial members of the coalition, ACSM, the American Heart Association and the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, are opening membership to “not-for-profit organizations that are membership-based and have identified physical activity and health as a primary mission.” Steven N. Blair, P.E.D., of the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas, said the coalition would attempt to “speak with one voice to provide Americans with consistent information about exercise.” That information will promote the Exercise Lite recommendation; as Blair paraphrased it: “Take the stairs instead of the elevator, walk to the post office instead of driving or take a brisk walk with the dog every evening. Just get up, get out and move.”

The Surgeon Report: Later that afternoon, a session was held on the development of the Surgeon Report on Physical Activity and Health, which is expected to be officially released about a year from now. Blair, who rises to the presidency of ACSM next year, is the general editor of the book, whose list of chapter authors read like a who’s who of the ACSM. I was more than curious to hear what the first speaker in the session had to say about exercise intensity. He was Ralph B. Cutter, famous for his work on the Alumni Health Study, who was co-author of the report on the life-extending value of more-intense exercise. But he gave no indication of parting with the Exercise-Lite recommendations for the purpose of the Surgeon General’s Report.

HP: I waited until Friday afternoon for the last shoe to drop, in the session on “HP: A Mid-Decade Review of Progress and Possibilities.” Among the speakers was William Booth, Ph.D., of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who explained the “rhyme and reason” of the physical activity and fitness objectives of HP. Again, the emphasis was at the lower level of activity: to get at least 30 percent of Americans to “engage in some type of light or moderate activity at least 30 minutes every day.”

Proponents of vigorous exercise are disappointed to see so little public emphasis on it — especially from a body devoted to “sports” medicine. This may be good public health policy for helping the most people become healthier with the minimum effort. But, it is not good policy for the individual who wants to be his or her best. Fitness professionals who expected a national campaign for fitness should be aware that this one is resigned to stop at the first signs of health benefits. For fitness, is this a cup half full, or half empty?