CDC Says Few Older Adults Get Enough Physical Activity. Trails Can Help.

Posted 09/15/16 by Ashley Ashworth in Health and Wellness, Policy

Boundary Bay Park in Tsawwassen, south of Vancouver, British Columbia | Photo courtesy Gord McKenna | CC by 2.0

In its report released today, Physical Activity Among Adults Aged 50 Years and Older, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shared some troubling news: More than one in four older Americans are physically inactive, and only 20 percent meet physical activity guidelines.

Jeannette Ralston is an avid cyclist in her 80s. | Photo courtesy Jack Ralston

Unfortunately, with the persistent obesity epidemic facing the nation, this doesn’t come as a huge surprise. What does, however, are the findings about how physical activity affects other chronic conditions such as stroke, arthritis and cancer. In 2014, two out of three adults older than 50 had at least one chronic disease, and inactivity was 30 percent higher in those with a chronic disease.

But here’s the good news. 

Physical activity can help manage the most prevalent chronic conditions, and trails provide the perfect low-stress environments in which to be active. The recommended 150 minutes of moderate activity per week may not be feasible for everyone; however, for those getting little to no activity, an increase of just 10 minutes per day can make a huge difference.

The CDC acknowledges that there are many factors preventing older adults from being more physically active and points to community design—including the creation of more trails—as important solutions to the challenge. We couldn’t agree more!

Specific recommendations include the following:

  1. Design communities that make physical activity safe and easy for people of all ages and abilities.
  2. Develop or enhance access to places for physical activity, including building trails.
  3. Deliver community programs that help adults over 50 be physically active.
RELATED: 100 Reasons to Walk (for Your Health)

The report raises important questions about physical activity and health, such as:

  • How does a moderate increase in physical activity improve quality of life for people with these chronic diseases?
  • How can we build infrastructure that makes physical activity an easy option for people with chronic conditions?
  • Why aren’t older Americans getting the physical activity they need?

We may not know all the answers, but we can make some educated guesses.

undefinedMany communities are designed with day-to-day destinations located too far away from residential areas or employment centers, making walking or biking impractical. People living with a chronic condition may also be less confident in their ability to be physically active. And for many individuals, there are simply no comfortable places to walk in their neighborhoods, whether they lack sidewalks or have dangerous traffic.

When doctors recommend physical activity to their patients, they need to be aware of the many options available in their communities and offer concrete solutions, such as local trails, that people can use to get out and get active. Trails provide a safe alternative to busy streets and an opportunity to spend time in nature.

Moderate levels of physical activity can improve the health of individuals who are physically frail, and can prevent or delay diseases associated with aging. Trails can play an essential role in encouraging that physical activity—especially for people with one or more chronic conditions—but America needs to continue to invest in making our communities more walkable and bikeable.

That’s why we’re calling on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to increase funding for the CDC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity (DNPAO) to $120 million with a focus on creating and promoting safe and healthy environments for physical activity. DNPAO is the only division within CDC specifically tasked with addressing issues around physical activity—and they have less than $1 million per state to address the biggest health crisis we face. With this report in hand, the arguments are hard to make against an investment in programming that helps people—especially those most at risk for inactivity—to get active.

As the population ages, it is important that we remember what an essential asset our trail system is for keeping active and that we continue to invest in solutions that promote physical activity. Interconnected trail systems are the keys to keeping us all healthy!

Tell the Next President: Trails Are Wise Investments

Urge the next administration to make wise investments in trails, walking and biking programs that make our communities healthier and more connected.

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