Researchers Revise How Americans Get Healthy

Americans need to get moving — and two University of Pittsburgh professors are advising health professionals nationwide on the best ways to do it.

Department of Psychology Professor Kirk I. Erickson and John M. Jakicic, chair of the Department of Health and Physical Activity in the School of Education, are helping rewrite the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Revised once every 10 years, the guidelines serve as the primary authoritative voice of the federal government on physical activity, fitness and health for Americans. Chosen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to serve on the guideline’s advisory committee, Erickson and Jakicic are two of only 17 health professionals in the nation leading this effort.

The advisory committee recently completed its mission by submitting a comprehensive review of current physical activity recommendations and scientific evidence, the latter called the Scientific Report, to DHHS. Referencing more than 1,200 studies, the Scientific Report serves as the guiding document for developing the new federal guidelines.

“Both the Scientific Report and the Physical Activity Guidelines should be thought of as road maps geared toward health professionals — everyone from your family physician to your personal trainer — who guide the general public towards healthier lifestyles,” said Jakicic, who studies the relationship between physical activity and chronic diseases.

Physical activity has been shown to prevent chronic diseases and improve health, but three out of 10 adults are inactive and fewer than one in four Americans currently meet the recommended levels of physical activity to improve health. In the U.S., two out of three deaths every year are related to chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer and diabetes, the DHHS reports.

“Our work will have an enormous impact on how Americans are advised to approach their health and well-being. It was professional honor to be chosen for the advisory committee,” said Erickson, who is also director of Pitt’s Brain Aging and Cognitive Health Lab. “Our contributions to the guidelines will set health standards for at least the next 10 years. I am exceptionally proud to have my name associated with such an impactful contribution to our society.”

With the advisory committee’s work now completed, DHHS is reviewing the recommendations made within the Scientific Report and public feedback. The 2018 edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans is expected to be drafted this summer and released this fall.

Chapters on weight gain and brain health

Within the Scientific Report, Erickson and Jakicic spearheaded development of the Brain Health and Cardiometabolic Health and Prevention of Weight Gain chapters, respectively. They both walked away from the experience with important takeaways that will influence their research at Pitt moving forward.

Jakicic has a newfound insight on how much exercise it takes to ward off weight gain. In the past, he said, it was believed that Americans should partake in bouts of physical exercise of at least 10 minutes. Now, he said, there’s significant evidence that shows that even shorter bursts of activity can be beneficial to improving one’s health.

“This finding is most significant for people working deskbound jobs or who otherwise have difficulty carving out long periods of time for activity,” said Jakicic, the founding director of Pitt’s Healthy Lifestyle Institute who is currently leading the University’s contributions to National Institutes of Health-funded research that seeks to better understand why physical exercise is beneficial. “These findings say that you don’t have to be a marathoner or a triathlete to be considered physically active. There are genuine health benefits to taking a short walk around the office four or five times a day.”

Erickson also gained important insights. A Pitt faculty member since 2008, his research focuses on the impact that physical activity has on brain function and health across the lifespan. This was the first year the Scientific Report contained a brain health chapter, and he was proud to lead its development. He said established research had previously found benefits of physical activity for people with cognitive dysfunctions, but new evidence shows there are health benefits for people with typically functioning brains, too.

“My team found that physical activity is an effective approach for influencing cognitive function, even for people without neurologic or psychiatric conditions,” said Erickson, who is currently leading a five-year, $21.8 million trial studying the link between exercise and brain health in older adults. A 2015 recipient of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Award, Erickson has published major findings within such renowned medical publications as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Neurology and Cerebral Cortex.

“This work could influence everyone’s behavior towards using physical activity to maintain and improve brain health,” Erickson said.