The following post is by guest blogger Helen Durkin, JD. Helen is the Executive Vice President of Public Policy for the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA)—a not-for-profit trade association representing health and fitness facilities, gyms, spas, sports clubs, and suppliers worldwide. She joined IHRSA in 1989 and developed the health club industry’s first government relations and legal service programs. She has served as the association’s director of public policy since 1999. In this leadership capacity, Durkin has succeeded in aligning IHRSA with the national effort to improve America’s health through healthy lifestyle choices and in promoting public policy that recognizes exercise as a key component of preventive health care.

Concerned about health care costs? Consider this: only one of every three adults exercises regularly; one in four does not exercise at all; nearly 40 percent spend the majority of the day sitting; and even though eight out of ten adults recognize the benefits of exercise, only two exercise enough to meet physical activity guidelines. What’s more, chronic diseases—many of which are preventable and related to lifestyle choices—remain the leading cause of death and disability in the United States. It’s no wonder that health care costs continue to soar.

More must be done in health care settings nationwide to address physical activity and exercise if we are to make greater progress in improving America’s health and curbing the cost of health care. And we must put a greater focus on the fundamental practice of prevention—in the form of healthy lifestyle choices.

For decades, the health care and fitness industries have been operating separately, working toward the same goal of improving people’s health and well-being. A synergy exists between the two industries that must to be recognized and leveraged. It’s time for the health care and fitness industries to forge a partnership. We can maximize our efforts and become more effective. And we can build upon one another’s strengths to improve America’s health.

The fitness industry specializes in exercise and knows what motivates people to become and remain physically active. Physicians and others within the medical community are highly influential and have access to people when they are most focused on their health—and when they are most receptive to accepting health care recommendations. In fact, 65 percent of patients say they would be more interested in exercising to stay healthy if advised by their doctor and given additional resources; 25 percent note that their doctor would be the first person they turn to for advice on exercise and physical activity; and four out of ten physicians talk to their patients about the importance of exercise—but don’t always offer suggestions on the best ways to be physically active.

Working in tandem with the fitness industry, health care providers can adopt and implement preventive care standards that promote regular physical activity and healthy eating; discuss physical activity as part of routine physical examinations; prescribe exercise; and refer patients to exercise programs, health clubs, exercise physiologists, and personal trainers who can help them establish and maintain healthy exercise routines.

The fitness industry can work with health care providers to develop medically appropriate exercise programs for individual patients; help them maintain a continuum of health-sustaining exercise and lifestyle behaviors; and keep referring-physicians informed of their patients’ progress.

Research confirms that exercise and physical activity are important to health and the prevention and treatment of many chronic diseases.  At the proper moderate intensity, regular exercise significantly improves overall health; reduces the risk of heart disease; lowers the risk of stroke; reduces the incidence of high blood pressure; reduces the incidence of diabetes; can reduce mortality and the risk of recurrent breast cancer; can lower the risk of colon cancer; can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease; and can decrease depression as effectively as medications or behavioral therapy.

For nearly 30 years, a driving vision of leaders in the fitness industry has been to make exercise a key component of preventive health care and to establish exercise as a patient vital sign. I’m hopeful that the day of realization may soon be upon us.

This year marked the first time in America’s history that an alliance of private and public organizations came together to introduce a National Physical Activity Plan for our country. This landmark plan is a comprehensive set of policies, programs, and initiatives that aim to increase physical activity in all segments of the American population. It explicitly calls on physicians to establish physical inactivity as a treatable and preventable condition with profound health implications and to make physical activity a patient “vital sign.”

What’s more, Exercise is Medicine™, a global initiative whose guiding principles are shared by the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), is calling on health care providers to assess and review every patient’s physical activity program at every visit. Likewise, Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign is helping to raise the visibility of physical activity and the correlation it has to America’s health.

Without doubt, exercise is a patient vital sign. It should be checked often as part of routine medical care.  And it should be prescribed regularly. When used appropriately, exercise is the greatest medicine available to us today. It’s time for the health care and fitness industries to join together to ensure that patients’ exercise levels stay within a healthy range. It’s the greatest hope we have for improving America’s health and controlling the cost of care.

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