Reality check

On a Saturday morning in early March — realizing that, yes, I really don't have much of a life — I decided to check my work e-mail (as opposed to, say, relaxing and watching cartoons). I booted up my computer, dialed in and, lo and behold, found two new messages in my Inbox — one from IHRSA, the other from IDEA.

The IHRSA message had arrived first (at 9:30 a.m., according to my program), so I started with that one.

“Americans moving toward more exercise,” the e-mail began. “All arrows point in right direction.”

“Ah,” I thought. “Some good news.” I continued.

The IHRSA e-mail went on to discuss a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that examined activity levels among Americans from 1990 to 1998. In describing the study, IHRSA claimed that exercise levels have risen, while inactivity levels have declined. Yippee!

I shut the IHRSA e-mail and opened the one from IDEA, which had come through at 11:30 a.m. Coincidentally, the latter e-mail also dealt with the CDC study. But the tone was somber, the conclusion different.

“A newly released survey shows that there has been no improvement in the level of physical activity over the last 10 years,” IDEA reported. The e-mail then asked recipients to suggest ways to get more people exercising.

I closed the e-mail, feeling perplexed. Although both messages examined the same study, they gave contradictory opinions. I had to know — were more Americans exercising or not?

To get the answer, I went straight to the source: Sandra Ham, a CDC health statistician who worked on the report cited by IHRSA and IDEA.

During my conversation with Ham, I learned that the CDC study was based on a random telephone survey of U.S. adults. I learned that the data took population growth into account. And I learned that, despite IHRSA's congratulatory claims, the arrows are not pointing in the right direction.

According to the CDC, 24.3 percent of Americans engaged in recommended levels of physical activity (i.e., 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times per week, 20 minutes of vigorous exercise three times per week, or both during the preceding month) in 1990. The number was 25.4 percent in 1998.

While that's only growth of 1.1 percent, it's still growth. Isn't that significant? No, according to Ham, who explained that, statistically speaking, 1.1 percent is the equivalent of no growth at all. (Judging from its e-mail, IDEA also saw things that way.)

Ham drew a similar conclusion about inactivity levels. Although the number of Americans who reported no physical activity dropped, the percentage change was only 2 percent (from 30.7 percent in 1990 to 28.7 percent in 1998). Again, hardly a significant statistic.

The IHRSA e-mail claimed that the CDC report “shows that the U.S. initiative to make Americans more active has begun to show positive results.” That's like taking a bucket of water out of the ocean and announcing that the seas are drying up.

IHRSA has challenged the U.S. club industry to grow to 50 million members by 2010. That's a great initiative. But to reach that number, we need to think of ways to get more people exercising — as IDEA suggested.

I don't know the ultimate solution that will increase people's interest in fitness. What I do know is that living in denial won't bring about improvement. Our industry won't grow by pretending that U.S. citizens are eager to exercise. They aren't. That's bad news. But here's the good news: Once you recognize reality, you can work to change it.

Best regards,

Jerry Janda