The Power of Physical Activity

Physical Activity: A Prescription for Health

In February, the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee submitted its Scientific Report to the US Secretary of Health and Human Services. This report summarizes the scientific evidence on physical activity and health and was used to develop the second edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. The following table from Part D Integrating the Evidence highlights both established and new findings.

Physical Activity-Related Health Benefits for the General Population and Selected Populations
3 to <6 years
  • Improved bone health and weight status
6 to 17 years
  • Improved cognitive function
  • Improved cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness
  • Improved bone health
  • Improved cardiovascular risk factor status
  • Improved weight status or adiposity
  • Fewer symptoms of depression
Adults, all ages
All-cause mortality
  • Lower risk
Cardiometabolic conditions
  • Lower cardiovascular incidence and mortality (including heart disease and stroke)
  • Lower incidence of hypertension
  • Lower incidence of type 2 diabetes
  • Lower incidence of bladder, breast, colon, endometrium, esophagus, kidneystomach and lung cancers
Brain health
  • Reduced risk of dementia
  • Improved cognitive function
  • Improved cognitive function following bouts of aerobic activity
  • Improved quality of life
  • Improved sleep
  • Reduced feelings of anxiety and depression in healthy people and in people with existing clinical syndromes
  • Reduced incidence of depression
Weight status
  • Reduced risk of excessive weight gain
  • Weight loss and the prevention of weight regain following initial weight loss when a sufficient dose of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity is attained
  • An additive effect on weight loss when combined with moderate dietary restriction
Older Adults
  • Reduced incidence of falls
  • Reduced incidence of fall-related injuries
Physical function
  • Improved physical function in older adults with or without frailty
Individuals with Pre-Existing Medical Conditions
Breast cancer
  • Reduced risk of all-cause and breast cancer mortality
Colorectal cancer
  • Reduced risk of all-cause and colorectal cancer mortality
Prostate cancer
  • Reduced risk of prostate cancer mortality
  • Decreased pain
  • Improved function and quality of life
  • Reduced risk of progression of cardiovascular disease
  • Reduced risk of increased blood pressure over time
Type 2 diabetes
  • Reduced risk of cardiovascular mortality
  • Reduced progression of disease indicators: hemoglobin A1c, blood pressure, blood lipids, and body mass index
Multiple sclerosis
  • Improved walking
  • Improved physical fitness
  • Improved cognition
Some conditions with impaired executive function
  • Improved cognition

Note: Benefits in bold font are those added in 2018; benefits in normal font are those noted in the 2008 Scientific Report. Only outcomes with strong or moderate evidence of effect are included in the table.

Despite the health benefits of regular physical activity and the consequences of a sedentary lifestyle: 

  • Globally, 23 percent of adults 18+ and 80 percent of adolescents are insufficiently active.
  • According to the US 2016 National Health Interview Survey, 48 percent of adults are NOT meeting the Physical Activity Guidelines for aerobic activity, and 78 percent of adults are NOT meeting the guidelines for both aerobic and strength training.
  • U.S. adolescents and adults spend almost eight hours a day in sedentary behaviors. 
  • Approximately 36 percent of adults engage in NO leisure-time physical activity at all.
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