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The Urgency of Addressing Physical Activity: a webinar recap

On Monday, May 10, I joined walking advocate and Associate Professor at Tufts University Mark Fenton, Katie Adamson from the YMCA of America, and Graham Melstrand from the American Council on Exercise to talk about the urgent need to help people get physical activity as the United States emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic. This talk was organized as a congressional briefing about how Congress can improve physical activity and you can listen to the entire briefing below:

This opportunity was organized by the Physical Activity Alliance, an alliance of groups like the League with a stake in increasing physical activity to address chronic diseases related for physical inactivity. This broad alliance includes leading groups like the American Heart AssociationAmerican Cancer Society, and the American College of Sports Medicine in addition to many others.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, we have seen many people experiencing their streets in new ways, but many people have also been less physically active due to stay-at-home orders, fewer fitness and sports events, and avoiding potentially dangerous crowds. Recently, studies are finding that physical activity – as it does for many chronic diseases – improves outcomes for people infected by Covid-19. A recent study from Kaiser Permanente of nearly 50,000 people with Covid-19 found that “Physical activity provided strong protection from hospitalization, ICU admission and death among COVID-19 patients.”

Starting the event, Dr. Rachel Levine, the Assistant Secretary of Health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, talked about the proven health benefits of physical activity and the U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines. Some of the immediate benefits of physical activity also help people deal with stress, particularly important during the Covid-19 pandemic during which we have seen mental health impacted. The proven benefits of physical activity are why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has launched the Active People, Healthy Nation initiative to get 27 million people more physically active by 2027. Other initiatives to support physical activity include the Move Your Waycampaign, National Youth Sports Strategy, and President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition.

Mark Fenton then spoke about how the U.S. transportation system does not prioritize people who bike and walk, leading to fewer people biking and walking and fewer people integrating physical activity into their daily lives. When transportation systems are designed to include and promote biking, walking, and transit, then physical activity increases and communities see health, economic, and safety benefits. The Covid-19 pandemic showed the potential for improved air quality from less driving, particularly in the U.S. where transportation is the top sector for greenhouse gas emissions. To get people to bike and walk more, investments in safe, slow, and separate infrastructure is needed, as seen in many slow street programs during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Building off Mark’s evidence-based argument for more bicycling and walking transportation, I highlighted the opportunities coming for federal investments in safer infrastructure for biking and walking. The League’s #1 priority this year is the federal transportation bill and protecting and improving the Transportation Alternatives program that provides the majority of federal funding for biking and walking. I talked about the need for continued investment and several other opportunities to improve biking and walking, such as the following bills:

Katie Adamson from the YMCA of America closed out the briefing by addressing the potential lasting effects of physical inactivity during the Covid-19 pandemic and the potential for future increases in chronic diseases as we recover from Covid-19. Particularly problematic has been the disparate impacts of Covid-19 on Black and brown communities, who often also suffer from higher levels of traffic violence and a lack of access to safe places for physical activity. Increased support and funding for public health capacity to increase physical activity, including providing funding so that the Active People, Healthy Nation initiative can reach all 50 states, can address these long-term health challenges and health disparities. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has given us examples of short-term improvements in air quality, short-term reallocation of road space, and short-term benefits of physical activity for mental and physical health, including better outcomes related to Covid-19. These examples should be acted upon with urgency so that we address the long-term challenges of sedentary lifestyles required by car-dependent transportation systems, physical activity disparities due to patterns of community disinvestment, and chronic diseases associated with physical inactivity. With a new Administration, now is an ideal time for investing in physical activity and making sure that everyone has access to safe places to bike and walk.

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