Making Physical Activity Counseling a Priority in Clinical Practice

The Time for Action Is Now!

Overwhelming evidence indicates that regular physical activity is one of the most powerful health promoting practices that physicians and other health care professionals can recommend for patients.

For decades, scientific research has shown that regular physical activity protects against major chronic diseases,
including hypertension, type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, stroke, cognitive decline, selected cancers, and even depression. There is broad consensus within the medical and public health communities that physical activity yields wide-ranging health benefits. Moreover, no other single intervention or treatment is associated with such a diverse array of benefits.

In a recent “call to action” for a National Physical Activity Plan, the American Heart Association highlighted
that a lack of physical activity represents a leading cause of death worldwide.1 Directed at numerous groups, including health care professionals and public health practitioners, the report emphasized that advice from health professionals significantly influences adoption of healthy lifestyle behaviors, including regular physical activity, and can increase satisfaction with medical care. Given the overwhelming evidence of benefits from physical activity and the vital role of health professionals in motivating behavior change, the lack of physical
activity counseling in clinical settings represents a lost opportunity to improve the health and well-being of
patients, and with minimal cost. In this Viewpoint, we hope to motivate physicians and other health care
practitioners to include physical activity counseling in patient encounters and provide tools for efficiently
integrating this activity into busy clinical settings with constant time pressures.

The Opportunity
In 2012, there were more than 506 million primary care visits in the United States, most of which were for prevention and treatment of preventable chronic health conditions.4 Yet as few as 34% of adults report
being counseled about physical activity at their last physician visit. Even among adults with pre diabetes and other vascular risk factors, a similarly low proportion (40%) report receiving such counseling. Some of the reasons that clinicians may fail to offer physical activity counseling include time constraints, lack of tools, and skepticism about whether such counseling actually works.

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