Dr. Kenneth Cooper: Get Moving

Last October, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a global status report on physical activity, revealing that almost 500 million people globally will develop heart disease, obesity, diabetes or other noncommunicable diseases attributed to physical inactivity between 2020 and 2030. The cost: $27 billion annually if governments do not take action to encourage more physical activity among their populations. 

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That would be close to $300 billion spent over the next decade. My son, Dr. Tyler Cooper, and I recently signed the Physical Activity Alliance’s CEO pledge, supporting the CDC’s “Active People, Healthy Nation” initiative to help 27 million Americans become more active by 2027 by embracing physical activity and healthy movement.

Remember, it does not take that much effort. Thirty minutes of any type of aerobic activity such as walking, running, cycling or swimming—sustained or collectively—most days of the week, is sufficient. A total of 150 minutes per week is also the recommendation of the American College of Sports Medicine.

Benefits of Physical Activity

According to the WHO, physical activity has significant health benefits for heart, body and mind, including:

  • Preventing and managing noncommunicable illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes.
  • Reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  • Enhancing thinking, learning and judgment skills.
  • Ensuring health, growth and development in young people.
  • Improving overall well-being.

Globally, one in four adults do not meet the recommended physical activity levels. The physically inactive have 20-30% increased risk of death compared to people who are sufficiently active. More than 80% of the world’s adolescents are not sufficient in physical activity.

I classify physical activity into three areas:

  • Rest and relaxation.
  • Muscle-building and figure-contouring.
  • Cardiovascular activity.

All three types of physical activity have merit, but only one can prolong your life—cardiovascular activity. My definition of cardiovascular activity is any exercise that produces beneficial effects in the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems through activities that require only a modest increase in oxygen intake so it can be maintained. 

Physical Activity Decline

In addition to this WHO report on physical activity, a February 2022 article in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise documented the “time trends in physical activity from 1995 to 2017,” using wearable devices. Declines were seen in both males and females as well as in children. Counting steps per day, the change in physical activity was a decrease of 118 steps in adults and adolescents. This group averaged a total of only 2,278 steps per day. (The goal is at least 5,000 steps per day.) 

The conclusion: “Evidence from studies conducted in eight developed international countries over a 22-year period indicates that physical activity has declined overall, especially in adolescents.” I’ve always said, “It’s easier to raise a healthy child than to heal a sick adult.”

I was pleased to read a study in the Jan. 12, 2022, British Journal of Sports Medicine that supports what I have said for decades. It assessed cardiorespiratory fitness by an exercise stress test and reported at least three levels of fitness. 

The study revealed clearly that cardiorespiratory fitness leads to a decrease in mortality. Among those with the highest fitness levels, there was a 53% decrease in deaths from all causes, a 51% decrease in cardiovascular disease-related deaths, and a 43% decrease in cancer deaths. Among the least fit, such exercise led to a 12% decrease in deaths from all causes, a 13% decrease in cardiovascular disease-related deaths, and a mere 7% decrease in cancer deaths. So the more fit you are, the lower risk you have for all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease as well as cancer. 

Several preventive measures may account for these risk reductions. Cardiorespiratory fitness is associated with a decrease in inflammation, and increases in circulatory steroid hormone levels, growth factor production, antioxidant capacity and immune function. An increase in cardiorespiratory fitness is associated with lower abdominal obesity, lower elevated blood lipids (fats), decreased blood pressure and improved insulin sensitivity (less diabetes)—which may reduce the incidence of all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease and cancer mortality. 

This 2022 British study has findings similar to our 1989 landmark study “Physical Fitness and All-Cause Mortality,” proving that physical fitness decreases mortality. With nearly 5,000 references in scientific journals, it is referred to as the “landmark study of the century,” answering the question of how much exercise is enough. With 13,600 people involved in an 8.6-year study tested on the treadmill, their fitness was classified into five categories (very poor, poor, fair, good and excellent). If they increased their fitness even from very poor to poor, they decreased deaths from all causes by 58% and increased longevity by six years. Those who reached the highest category of fitness reduced deaths from all causes by 65% and increased longevity by nine years. So, the greatest return on your fitness investment is not going from very poor to excellent but from very poor to poor.  

As Christians, we must honor God with our bodies. First Corinthians 6:19-20 tells us that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in us and was given to us by God. It says, “You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body.”  

All of this new information we’ve provided supports what we’ve presented for 52 years about the value of physical activity. Hopefully, it will help us see that in order to honor God with our bodies, we must have sufficient physical activity. ©2023 Kenneth H. Cooper

Kenneth H. Cooper, M.D., MPH, known worldwide as “the father of aerobics,” is the founder and chairman of Cooper Aerobics in Dallas and chairman emeritus of The Cooper Institute.

The Scripture quotation is taken from The Holy Bible, New Living Translation, ©1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Carol Stream, Illinois, 60188. All rights reserved.