There's a food pyramid to help guide people's eating habits, so why not one for exercise? The Bush administration said Thursday it would develop guidelines for physical activity.
When the guidelines are ready in late 2008, federal health officials hope they will help people live healthier lifestyles, which in turn, could slow soaring health care costs.
"Obesity is an epidemic, and chronic disease inevitably follows. It has become a major quiet killer," said Mike Leavitt, the health and human services secretary.
More than half of adults in the United States do not get enough of the kind of physical activity that actually benefits them. One-quarter are not active at all in their leisure time. Overall, more than 60 million adults are obese, Leavitt said.
The lack of exercise contributes to the $2 trillion that people spend on health care in this country, Leavitt said. About three-quarters of that amount goes toward the treatment of chronic disease.
Every five years, the government updates dietary guidelines that are designed to tell people what they should eat and how they should prepare food to keep it safe and wholesome. The food pyramid is a separate document, put out by the Agriculture Department and based on those dietary guidelines.
Leavitt said the government has a compelling national interest in promoting healthy choices. But he made it clear that the steps he envisions are less forceful than others might consider necessary. For instance, New York City is considering strict limits on artificial trans fats in restaurant meals.
"You cannot create a culture of wellness through regulations and penalties," Leavitt said.
Leavitt said he would begin meeting with the beverage and snack industry, as well as marketing and media groups, about how to create a "culture of wellness."
"If we simply burden people with guilt or we appeal only to their fears, it won't happen," he said.
The government already makes recommendations about exercise. The new pyramid, for example, recommends 30 minutes of daily physical activity, says 60 minutes is needed to prevent weight gain and 90 minutes may be needed to sustain weight loss.
The surgeon general issued a report in the mid 1990s that contained recommendations on exercise.
Officials said the new guidelines, however, would establish a process where the best science on physical activity would be routinely evaluated.
Dr. Douglas Kamerow, a member of the Institute of Medicine's Committee on Childhood Obesity, said his panel recommended the physical activity guidelines. While most obese people know they should eat less and move more, scientific guidelines could be helpful, he said.
"If we can have the best science brought to bear and you can put out guidelines that would be age-specific, something for school, something for home, you could end up with something that might be useful" Kamerow said.