Americans failing to realise exercise need

Many people in the US are failing to recognise the need for adequate exercise. This is the suggestion of new research from teams at Penn State and the University of Maryland, who found Americans spend an average of just two hours a week taking part in sport and fitness activities.

The findings make use of US government data from the American Time Use Study and are published in the 2011 edition of the Time Use in Australia and United States/Canada Bulletin.

It means the amount of exercise undertaken by a typical US resident is around half of that recommended by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Geoffrey Godbey, Professor Emeritus of Recreation, Park and Tourism Management at Penn State, described the nation as the fattest on earth and claimed the activity figures represent a real concern.

As way of explanation for the trend, Professor Godbey noted an automobile culture is predominant in the country, while the general population is ageing, team sports can be expensive and crime levels make people reluctant to leave the house.

He added many individuals are almost addicted to TV and computers, observing: "Americans aged 18 to 64 average more than 35 hours of free time each week, but they spend half of it watching television." 

Dr Frank Eves, a Chartered Psychologist from the University of Birmingham, commented: "First, the report is in error on the recommended guidelines in the second paragraph. The recommendation is for two and a half hours minutes per week of moderate intensity activity, i.e. brisk walking or one hour 15 minutes of vigorous activity, e.g. running or team sport. 

"Either of these can be coupled with strength training two days a week. So the initial box which suggests 'American spend on average two hours per week' suggests that on average, Americans are not far short of the recommended guidelines. 

"It is likely that this estimate is optimistic. For example in the UK, the Health Survey for England (2008) estimated that 39 per cent of men and 29 per cent of women met the moderate intensity guidelines based on self-report whereas objective measures with accelerometers indicates that only six per cent of men and four per cent of women actually met these guidelines. 

"Self-report is a very poor way to accurately assess population levels of physical activity. It is, however, a cheap way and, hence, attractive to public health.

"Second, car based cultures such that the environment is designed to suit them rather than pedestrians is clearly a major problem in the US. Active transport, either by walking/cycling to work, or combining walking with public transport are relatively simple solutions to insufficient physical activity. 

"For example, studies in New York have estimated that using public transport resulted in about 20 extra minutes of daily physical activity in the form of walking. This leaves only a further ten minutes to be achieved by any other means, e.g. a quick walk to the shops. 

"Providing affordable, reliable public transport would represent a major step towards increasing physical activity levels of the population. Persuading people to leave their cars at home has proved difficult, but the escalating cost of fuel and increased costs of parking in major cities may be major levers that could be applied to this problem. Persuading politicians to push on these levers is also a problem.

"Third, while the report suggests low levels of sport may reflect potential costs to the individual, decreasing competence with increasing age may be more of an issue. On average, we are better at watching sport than we are at performing it, simply because many of us are not very good at sport. The idea that watching some elite athletes during the Olympics will enthuse the nation to pursue sport is a myth. Most of us are just not good enough."