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May 10, 2018

Experts Encourage Routine Screening for Physical Inactivity

Making the case that health care providers should ask patients about activity levels to identify those at risk for heart disease.

Screening for physical activity should be made priority at each and every doctor's visit, based on a recent statement from the American Heart Association that addresses the strong link between physical activity and heart health.

Published in Circulation, this statement reviewed the latest evidence on the assessment and promotion of physical activity. It also provides recommendations for achieving the American Heart Association's 2020 Impact Goals, which are to improve the heart health of Americans and reduce deaths caused by heart disease and stroke by 20%.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Staying active can significantly reduce that risk and improve overall health. However, it's estimated that 8 in 10 U.S. adults don't get the recommended levels of exercise, putting them at increased risk for heart disease.

To address this issue, experts encourage routine physical activity screenings at each and every doctor's visit. The screening could be as simple as asking patients how many times they have exercised for 30 minutes or more in the past week or month. Screenings could also involve more detailed questionnaires about physical activity or involve accelerometers that measure patients' physical activity for a short period of time.

According to authors, all of these assessments have proven effective in identifying patients who need to increase their physical activity to improve their heart health.

The problem, however, is that screenings are not usually done on a regular basis. While inactivity is common and increases risk for heart disease, few patients are routinely asked about it at their doctor's appointments. Experts believe this a huge missed opportunity for identifying patients at risk for heart disease and offering steps to improve their health.

For this reason, authors encourage a "systems change" approach to increasing routine screening for physical inactivity. That means making physical activity screenings a priority at appointments, right alongside routine assessments of weight and blood pressure. It also means providing recommendations and support when patients are not meeting current recommendations for physical activity.

Current guidelines recommend that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week. It's no secret that most Americans fall incredibly short of meeting these goals.

Authors explain that patients should be educated about physical activity guidelines and offered tips for achieving them. For example, 150 minutes may seem intimidating for individuals who don't exercise at all on a regular basis. When patients are hesitant, doctors should encourage just 10 or 15 minutes of exercise at a time through simple activities like walking or doing yard work. Providers should also help patients brainstorm about types of activities that they might like to incorporate into their routine, such as yoga or other types of exercise.

While these strategies are simple, authors explain that they could have a major impact in improving the heart health of Americans.

Questions for You to Consider

  • How much exercise do I need?
  • Regular physical activity is important for both children and adults. According to the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans:

    • Children and adolescents should get 60 minutes or more of physical activity daily.
    • Optimum exercise levels for adults includes:
      • 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise (or a combination of the two) each week.
      • Activity spread across the week with periods of aerobic exercise of at least 10 minutes at a time.
      • Muscle strengthening activities 2 or more days a week.
  • What are the benefits of physical activity?
  • Regular physical activity has a wealth of benefits, such as reducing risk for high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, depression, cancer and heart disease. Exercise can also increase energy, improve mood, and promote better sleep. Regular physical activity is a key component of a healthy lifestyle.

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