Quarter of Older Adults Do Not Engage in Regular Physical Activity; Risk of Disease

Despite the many benefits of moderate physical activity, 31 million Americans (28 percent) age 50 years and older are inactive – that is, they are not physically active beyond the basic movements needed for daily life activities. This puts them at risk for heart disease, diabetes and cancer. This finding comes from a new study from the CDC published in the September 15, 2016 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.


“Adults benefit from any amount of physical activity,” said Janet E. Fulton, Ph.D., chief of CDC’s Physical Activity and Health Branch and one of the authors of the report. “Helping inactive people become more physically active is an important step towards healthier and more vibrant communities.”


The CDC researchers analyzed data from the 2014 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System for all 50 states and the District of Columbia (D.C.) to examine patterns of inactivity among adults ages 50 and older by selected characteristics. The analysis showed inactivity was higher for women (29.4 percent) compared with men (25.5 percent). The percentage of inactivity by race and ethnicity varied: Hispanics (32.7 percent), non-Hispanic blacks (33.1 percent), non-Hispanic whites (26.2 percent), and other groups (27.1 percent). Inactivity significantly increased with age: 25.4 percent for adults 50-64 years, 26.9 percent for people 65-74 years, and 35.3 percent for people 75 years and older. More adults with at least one chronic disease were inactive (31.9 percent) compared with adults with no chronic disease (19.2 percent).


By region, inactivity was highest in the South (30.1 percent) followed by the Midwest (28.4 percent) and in the Northeast (26.6 percent). Inactivity was lowest in the West (23.1 percent). By states and D.C., the percentage of inactivity ranged from 17.9 percent in Colorado to 38.8 percent in Arkansas. The percentage of inactivity decreased as education increased and also increased as weight status increased.


“This report helps us better understand and address differences in inactivity among adults 50 years and older,” said Kathleen B. Watson, Ph.D., an epidemiologist in the CDC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity and lead author of the report. “More work is needed to make it safer and easier for people of all ages and abilities to be physically active in their communities.”


Physical activity reduces the risk of premature death and can delay or prevent many chronic diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia, and some cancers. As adults grow older, they are more likely to be living with a chronic disease and these diseases are major drivers of sickness and disability.


Non-institutionalized adults, ages 50 years and older, account for $860 billion in health care costs each year. However, four in five of the most costly chronic conditions for this age group can be prevented or managed with physical activity. Non-institutionalized adults are people not living in institutions such as correctional facilities, long-term care hospitals, or nursing homes and who are not on active duty in the Armed Forces.


Being physically active helps older adults maintain the ability to live independently and reduces the risk of falling and fracturing bones. Being physically active can also improve mental health and delay dementia and cognitive decline.


Everyone, including federal, state, and local governments, transportation engineers and community planning professionals, and community organizations can play a role in helping communities offer design enhancements and healthy lifestyle programs to create a culture that supports physical activity. To help adults with and without chronic disease start or maintain an active lifestyle, communities can implement evidence-based strategies, such as creating or enhancing access to places for physical activity, designing communities and streets to encourage physical activity, and offering programs that address specific barriers to physical activity. The CDC is working with state health departments to increase physical activity by increasing the number of communities that have pedestrian and bike-friendly master transportation plans. Street design can support walking and enhance pedestrian safety through measures that improve safety and aesthetics, as well as addressing barriers for persons with limitations (e.g., using curb cuts).


Given higher levels of inactivity among persons with chronic conditions, it is important that organizations offer programs that address specific concerns these adults might have and barriers they might face. For example, the Arthritis Foundation’s Walk with Ease program has been shown to reduce pain, increase balance and strength, and improve overall health through walking. Health care professionals can play a role in promoting physical activity by counseling patients, writing prescriptions for physical activity, and possibly referring them to community programs or facilities where they can be active.


See the CDC Announcement


See the CDC Report


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