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Walking the Path To Wellness: Small, Daily Steps Improve Health

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By: Dr. Nina Taggart
April 28, 2011

What if there was a treatment that could create an anti-aging effect, strengthen the immune system, lower blood pressure, reduce bad cholesterol and cut incidences of Type 2 diabetes? 

Imagine the same treatment could reduce sick-day usage and the lower risks of developing cardiovascular disease and breast cancer. As with all treatments there would be side effects — in this case mild euphoria, weight loss, increased stamina and toned muscles for some.

Stop imagining. A number of studies in recent years suggest regular exercise can potentially lead to those and other health benefits. Yet, 45 years after Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman helped popularize the term “jogging” and the ’70s craze that followed, too many Americans don’t realize the simple steps they can take toward wellness. 

Of course, one need not jog to see health benefits. April 27 marked the fifth annual “National Walk @ Lunch Day,” which has been embraced across the country by state and local lawmakers and businesses of all sizes. Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania was one of the 32 Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans that sponsored the nationwide initiative in which workers wore comfortable shoes and walked for exercise during their lunch breaks.

A short, brisk, walk at lunch-time every day can help Americans fulfill the federal government’s recommendation of just 90 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week. Ideally, adults also should engage in two days per week of strengthening exercises for the body’s major muscle groups. 

A simple walk or jog can help Americans experience the exercise benefits scientists seem to discover daily. Or as Dr. Robert Sallis, Kaiser Permanente’s Chairman of Exercise, told The Wall Street Journal in January, “Exercise can be used like a vaccine to prevent disease and a medication to treat disease. If there were a drug with the same benefits as exercise, it would instantly be the standard of care.” 

Yet, more than half of American adults do not engage in enough physical activity to achieve health benefits. Not surprisingly, one in three Americans are obese, while two in three are obese or overweight. 

Besides the affect on individuals, the costs to health system are staggering. Obesity-related expenses now account for nearly one in $10 spent on U.S. medical care. But obesity is just one of the chronic conditions affecting the quality of Americans’ lives and their pocketbooks. 

The Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease, a broad coalition of patient, provider and community organizations, pegs the massive price of treating chronic illnesses at 75 percent of all U.S. health care spending. 

For those among us who use tobacco, the least smokers can do is quit.  Among the roughly one in five American adults who smoke today, 70 percent want to quit. Yet, smoking kills nearly 500,000 Americans annually making it the leading cause of premature, preventable deaths in the U.S.

Many of us like to brag “I never go to the doctor” or people say “I’m too busy.” But visits to primary care doctors and basic testing save lives. Checkups don’t just help individuals discover and address life-changing diseases such as cancer. They can pick up untreated chronic conditions that can keep people “too busy” later on to enjoy retirement. 

More than 6 million Americans don’t know they have diabetes and complications from the undiagnosed condition account for an estimated $18 billion in annual U.S. health care expenditures. The American Diabetes Association estimates diabetes itself led to $174 billion in medical expenses and lost productivity in the U.S. during 2007. 

When Americans avoid checkups, “the silent killer” high blood pressure can go undiagnosed, too. In a 2008 survey, nearly four of 10 Americans said they don’t know their blood pressure reading. That’s one of the reasons BCNEPA offers members Blue Health Solutions, which helps members manage their health with features such health coaches who answer questions. 

Those who are daunted by the thought of exercise, tobacco cessation and checkups should remember Americans don’t need to run marathons on the road to wellness. We can walk it one step at a time. Or as the late Bill Bowerman once said, “If someone says, ‘Hey, I ran 100 miles this week.  How far did you run?’ ignore him! … The magic is in the man, not the 100 miles.” 

Nina Taggart, M.D., is a Medical Director with Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania.

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