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Physical Activity

Physical Activity


Improve health, fitness, and quality of life through daily physical activity.


Released in 2008, the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (PAG) is the first-ever publication of national guidelines for physical activity. The Physical Activity objectives for Healthy People 2020 reflect the strong state of the science supporting the health benefits of regular physical activity among youth and adults, as identified in the PAG. Regular physical activity includes participation in moderate and vigorous physical activities and muscle-strengthening activities.

More than 80 percent of adults do not meet the guidelines for both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities. Similarly, more than 80 percent of adolescents do not do enough aerobic physical activity to meet the guidelines for youth. Working together to meet Healthy People 2020 targets via a multidisciplinary approach is critical to increasing the levels of physical activity and improving health in the United States.

The Physical Activity objectives for 2020 highlight how physical activity levels are positively affected by:

  • Structural environments, such as the availability of sidewalks, bike lanes, trails, and parks
  • Legislative policies that improve access to facilities that support physical activity

New to Healthy People 2020 are objectives related to policies targeting younger children through:

  • Physical activity in childcare settings
  • Television viewing and computer usage
  • Recess and physical education in the Nation’s public and private elementary schools

Why Is Physical Activity Important?

Regular physical activity can improve the health and quality of life of Americans of all ages, regardless of the presence of a chronic disease or disability.1, 2 Among adults and older adults, physical activity can lower the risk of:

  • Early death
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Breast and colon cancer
  • Falls
  • Depression

Among children and adolescents, physical activity can:

  • Improve bone health.
  • Improve cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness.
  • Decrease levels of body fat.
  • Reduce symptoms of depression.

For people who are inactive, even small increases in physical activity are associated with health benefits.

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Understanding Physical Activity

Personal, social, economic, and environmental factors all play a role in physical activity levels among youth, adults, and older adults. Understanding the barriers to and facilitators of physical activity is important to ensure the effectiveness of interventions and other actions to improve levels of physical activity.

Factors positively associated with adult physical activity include:

  • Postsecondary education
  • Higher income
  • Enjoyment of exercise
  • Expectation of benefits
  • Belief in ability to exercise (self-efficacy)
  • History of activity in adulthood
  • Social support from peers, family, or spouse
  • Access to and satisfaction with facilities
  • Enjoyable scenery
  • Safe neighborhoods3

Factors negatively associated with adult physical activity include:

  • Advancing age
  • Low income
  • Lack of time
  • Low motivation
  • Rural residency
  • Perception of great effort needed for exercise
  • Overweight or obesity
  • Perception of poor health
  • Being disabled3

Older adults may have additional factors that keep them from being physically active, including lack of social support, lack of transportation to facilities, fear of injury, and cost of programs.4

Among children ages 4 to 12, the following factors have a positive association with physical activity:

  • Gender (boys)
  • Belief in ability to be active (self-efficacy)
  • Parental support5

Among adolescents ages 13 to 18, the following factors have a positive association with physical activity:

  • Parental education
  • Gender (boys)
  • Personal goals
  • Physical education/school sports
  • Belief in ability to be active (self-efficacy)
  • Support of friends and family5

Environmental influences positively associated with physical activity among children and adolescents include:

  • Presence of sidewalks
  • Having a destination/walking to a particular place
  • Access to public transportation
  • Low traffic density
  • Access to neighborhood or school play area and/or recreational equipment6

People with disabilities may be less likely to participate in physical activity due to physical, emotional, and psychological barriers. Barriers may include the inaccessibility of facilities and the lack of staff trained in working with people with disabilities.7

Emerging Issues in Physical Activity

Healthy People 2020 reflects a multidisciplinary approach to promoting physical activity. This approach brings about traditional partnerships, such as that of education and health care, with nontraditional partnerships representing, for example, transportation, urban planning, recreation, and environmental health. (For more information, see Several new objectives reflect this emphasis—for example, physical activity policies regarding childcare (Objective 2020-9) and environmental settings (Objective 2020-15).

Data sources that are representative of the entire Nation are needed to monitor key characteristics of the environment, such as the availability of parks and trails, the usage of these spaces, and policies that promote physical activity at worksites, in communities, and in schools.


1US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. 2008 Physical activity guidelines for Americans. Washington: HHS; 2008.

2US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Physical activity guidelines advisory committee report, 2008. Washington: HHS, 2008.

3Trost SG, Owen N, Bauman AE, et al. Correlates of adults’ participation in physical activity: Review and update,1996–2001. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2002 Dec;34(12).

4Belza B, Walwick J, Shiu-Thornton S, et al. Older adult perspectives on physical activity and exercise: Voices from multiple cultures. Prev Chronic Dis. 2004 Oct;1(4):A09 [cited 2010 Mar 22]. Available from:

5Van Der Horst K, Paw MJ, Twisk JW, et al. A brief review on correlates of physical activity and sedentariness in youth [Review]. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007 Aug;39(8):1241-50.

6Davison KK, Lawson CT. Do attributes in the physical environment influence children’s physical activity? A review of the literature. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2006 Jul 27;3:19.

7Rimmer JH, Riley B, Wang E, et al. Physical activity participation among persons with disabilities: Barriers and facilitators. Am J Prev Med. 2004 Jun;26(5):419-25.

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