82.7 Million Americans Did Not Participate in Physical Activity Last Year

April 24th 2015

Kathleen Toohill

According to a survey recently released by the Physical Activity Council (PAC), a group comprised of six major sports and manufacturer associations, 28.3 percent of Americans, or 82.7 million people, participated in no physical activities in 2014.

The 2015 Participation Report surveyed Americans age 6 and older and analyzed participation in 104 physical activities. This percentage of inactive Americans is the highest it’s been in six years. 

Tom Cove, Chairman of PAC, said in the release, “While we can look at this number in a negative light, I would like to use it as a wakeup call to not only our Industry but the rest of society. The benefits of increasing activity are well documented for individuals and for the country. It’s time we put our time & resources into industry initiatives and national campaigns to increase physical activity.”

Inactivity for the 18 to 24-year-old age group was 25.4 percent, slightly lower than that of the general population and a decrease for this age group as compared to last year’s inactivity percentage.

Exercise is more important than weight loss.

The release of this study happened to coincide with the publication of an editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine: “It is time to bust the myth of physical inactivity and obesity: you cannot outrun a bad diet.”

“Regular physical activity reduces the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia and some cancers by at least 30 percent,” write the editorial’s authors. “However, physical activity does not promote weight loss.”

The editorial makes the argument that exercise is not a quick fix for obesity and that calorie counting is much less important than “where the calories come from.” While the editorial’s authors are by no means encouraging inactivity, it would be unfortunate if readers of this study took away the wrong message: that if exercise doesn’t guarantee weight loss, it must not be worth it. In addition to the significant health benefits of exercise that the editorial's authors listed, a few additional benefits reported by the Mayo Clinic include improvement of mood, boosted energy, and better sleep. 

In a TED talk from 2013, neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt discussed why diets don’t usually work, despite our persistent belief that reaching our goal weight is simply a matter of self-control. She explained that humans have a “set point” when it comes to weight—a range of 10-15 pounds that bodies fight to maintain, despite the willpower and best intentions of the dieting individual. After years of overeating, we can raise our set point, Aamodt said, but it’s much more difficult to lower it. 

While this may sound like bad news, Aamodt cushioned it with a positive, and crucially important, caveat. Engaging in four healthy behaviors: regular exercise, not smoking, moderate drinking, and eating fruits and vegetables, helps everyone -- regardless of weight -- live longer. 

“In fact, if you look only at the group with all four healthy habits, you can see that weight makes very little difference. You can take control of your health by taking control of your lifestyle, even If you can't lose weight and keep it off,” Aamodt said. 

According to scientific research published in the journal Lancet in 2012 and reported by Time, studies have found that lack of physical activity contributes to up to 10 percent of premature deaths globally, the same percentage of premature deaths caused by smoking. Exercise should be viewed not as a means to the end of weight loss, but as a non-optional component of living a healthy life. 

Exercise and mental health.

If decreased risk of disease and lower probability of premature death haven’t swayed you, how about the effect of exercise on mental health?

An article written by Kristen Weir for the American Psychological Association in 2012 outlines multiple ways in which exercise can benefit those suffering from depression and anxiety. 

Researchers are still determining exactly how and why exercise has such a significant effect on mood.  

“Some researchers suspect exercise alleviates chronic depression by increasing serotonin (the neurotransmitter targeted by antidepressants) or brain-derived neurotrophic factor (which supports the growth of neurons),” Weir wrote. “Another theory suggests exercise helps by normalizing sleep, which is known to have protective effects on the brain.”

If you’re looking to hit the gym (or pavement, or yoga studio, or what have you) the government’s Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends an hour of physical activity a day for children ages 6-17 and half an hour a day for those ages 18-64.