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Overall Health of Americans Needs Improvement

If you get more than 7-8 hours of sleep each night, then you’re like most U.S. adults, according to a new report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But, if you are overweight or obese and don’t exercise on a regular basis, you’re also in good company.

As a division of the CDC, the The National Center for Health Sciences (NCHS) monitors the prevalence of five key health behaviors in U.S. adults including alcohol consumption, cigarette smoking, leisure-time physical activity, body mass index (BMI) and hours of sleep.

The latest report from NCHS, which uses data from over 76,000 adults taken as part of the 2008-2010 National Health Information Survey, shows that many adults are falling short on meeting basic health goals:

  • 64.9% were current drinkers
  • 20.2% were current smokers
  • 46.1% met the federal guidelines for aerobic physical activity
  • 23.0% met the federal guidelines for muscle-strengthening physical activity
  • 19.4% met the guidelines for both aerobic physical and muscle-strengthening physical activity
  • 62.1% were overweight or obese (BMI equal to or greater than 25)
  • 69.7% got 7-8 hours of sleep each night

According to report author Charlotte Schoenborn, these numbers represent persistent trends. "Changes have not been enormous. It's been a very, very slow process of changing awareness of personal choices for healthier ways of life." she said.

Below you’ll find more details regarding each of these five health areas.

"Fifty percent of adults met neither the aerobic nor the muscle-strengthening guidelines recommended by the government."

Alcohol Use

While light to moderate alcohol use has been associated with health benefits, heavier drinking poses considerable health risks. Based on the latest NCHS statistics:

  • Nearly two-thirds of adults drink alcohol, with about 5% drinking at levels classified as “heavier” (for women more than 7 drinks a week; for men, more than 14 drinks a week).
  • Men are more likely to be drinkers than women (70.8% vs. 59.5%).
  • Current drinking is most prevalent among adults 25-44 (73.1%).
  • White adults (67.8%) were more likely than any other racial group to be current drinkers.

Do you have a problem with alcohol? Try this short quiz to find out.

Cigarette Smoking

Tobacco use remains the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S. Never starting smoking is key because smoking is such a difficult habit to stop.

  • About one in five adults were current smokers; but over one-half of adults (58.6%) had never smoked cigarettes.
  • Over two-thirds of adult smokers would like to quit smoking and nearly one-half of current smokers (45.8%) attempted to quit smoking in the past year.
  • Daily smokers smoked an average of 15 cigarettes a day.
  • About 3 in 10 smokers started smoking before age 16.
  • Smoking declined steadily with increasing education – from 28.7% among adults with less than a high school diploma to 5.7% among adults with an advanced degree.

Physical Activity

In 2008, the government established Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans which were initially incorporated into Healthy People 2010 and then into Healthy People 2020.

These guidelines recommend that adults engage in aerobic physical activity of at least moderate intensity for at least 150 minutes/week or 75 minutes/week of vigorous activity. The guidelines also recommend that adults engage in muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days of the week.

Based on the latest NCHS statistics, adults are not meeting the national objective of becoming more physically fit:

  • One-third of adults (33.9%) did not engage in aerobic leisure-time physical activity.
  • About 7 in 10 adults (73.5%) never engaged in leisure-time muscle-strengthening activities.
  • About one-half of adults (50.3%) met neither aerobic nor muscle-strengthening guidelines.
  • About one in five adults (19.4%) met both the aerobic and muscle-strengthening guidelines.

Body Mass Index (BMI)

BMI is a measure calculated from weight and height and is a fairly reliable indicator of fatness for most people. Obesity continues to be a problem in this country but for those who have less education and income, rates of obesity are much higher.

  • About one-third (34.8%) of adults are overweight (BMI 25 – 30).
  • More than one-quarter (27.4%) of adults are obese (BMI greater than 30).
  • Overweight was most prevalent among adults aged 45- 74.
  • Nearly 7 in 10 adults (65.8%) with less than a high school diploma were overweight compared with 5 in 10 adults (54.2%) who earned a graduate degree.
  • Black adults (37.0%) were more likely than white adults (26.6%) or Asian adults (10.2%) to be obese.


An average of 7-8 hours of sleep has been recommended by the National Sleep Foundation and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Getting sufficient sleep is important as risks associated with insufficient sleep include diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, obesity, depression, cognitive dysfunction and injury. Those adults not getting sufficient sleep included:

  • Adults aged 18-21 were least likely to get sufficient sleep (54.6%) compared with adults 25-64.
  • About 7 in 10 adults (68.8%) who had a bachelor’s degree or advanced degree met the sleep objective compared with 54.2% of adults who had just a GED.
  • Adults living in the West (64.7%) were more likely to get 7-8 hours of sleep compared with other regions of the country.

The Bottom Line

This latest report on our nation’s health habits has good news and bad news. The good news is that a good chunk of adults neither engage in at-risk drinking nor smoke cigarettes. They also get sufficient sleep. The bad news is that more than two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese and half neither met the aerobic nor muscle-strengthening guidelines.

In less than a decade, the government is hoping that many more Americans will meet the national health objectives outlined in Healthy People 2020. The challenge is how do we get there?

I’m not feeling too optimistic that the government will help us solve the obesity crisis. Big food companies are too involved in shaping food policy and their interests are counter to those of Americans. So, that leaves it up to the individual, family and community to improve our nation's health.

If you're lucky enough to live in a city that encourages physical activity, take advantage of these resources (check here for a list of healthiest cities in America). If you're not motivated to get out and exercise, then hook up with a partner, spouse or friend. If you have the resources, hire a personal trainer one day a week to teach you muscle-strengthening exercises.

On the food front, the best way to control to what you eat and the amount of calories you consume is by shopping and preparing your own food. Plan out your meals on Sunday. Then shop for most items and prepare healthy meals ahead of time. For example, make a soup on the weekend and save or freeze the extra for lunches. Prepare a big salad (without the dressing) and eat for lunch or dinner. Add a small portion of leftover fish or chicken from the previous night's meal. Cut up fruit or veggies and store in the fridge ready for snacking.

We're at a crossroads with the nation's health. If we don't start making changes to lower the rate of obesity and increase our physical activity, the nation's cost of healthcare will skyrocket in the years to come.

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