The Potential Ramifications of the Surgeon General’s Report on Exercise

In May of 1996, the US Surgeon General will unveil a report on the benefits of exercise for the American public. Portions of this report were discussed by Dr. Steve Blair at a recent health and fitness conference in San Diego, CA1. Although the specific details of this report are yet unavailable to the masses, the elements of this report have been known for quite some time.

Since the classic report by Dr. Ralph Paffenbarger in 19862 on the improvement in longevity though regular lifetime physical activity, there have been a tremendous amount of scientific papers written expounding the benefits of regular physical exercise and health benefits. Some of the most impressive articles to date include the following:

  1. The incorporation of regular physical activity and the improvement in cardiovascular health indexes (such as lipid levels, heart rate, blood pressure, and body weight)3.

  2. The tremendous improvement in strength of 80 and 90 year old patients to a supervised weight training program. After 4 months of exercise, strength levels improved by over 170%.
    Even after two months of inactivity, strength levels were still significantly higher than in the sedentary state4.

  3. Recent publications on the benefits of exercise with medical patients. From hypertension to diabetes to rheumatic diseases, there are known positive effects of exercise with over two dozen chronic medical conditions5.

  4. The reduction in the occurrence of breast cancer in women under 40 by the regular participation in physical exercise 3-5 days per week. The higher amount of exercise performed, the lower the risk. In many cases the reduction may be cut by more than one third6.

These reports solidify the tens of thousands of sports medicine and public health publications in the past 25 years on exercise and health. Their significance on public health may be as important as any drug discovery over the past half century because, unlike prescription medications, there are no side effects to a properly designed exercise routine (except improved health).

The surgeon general’s report may have the same significance as the 1964 report on smoking and cancer. However, unlike the smoking report, which took about 25 years to take hold in the consciousness of the American public, the information available on exercise has been presented in TV and print media for years. Creating a more solid health promotion and exercise industry may be a logical extension of this report, as more persons who are unfamiliar with exercise will be asking questions their physician’s cannot answer, and a referral to a qualified professional is likely.

This report may open the flood gates for alternative types of health programs, such as the ancient but efficacious soft style martial arts7, yoga, meditation, and even combination programs such as the Pritikin or Dr. Ornish exercise and lifestyle programs8.

Either way, there is a revolution coming. It has been brewing for many years. People have been watching it from a distance. Others have tried to work it into the health care system. Now with the blessing of the Surgeon General’s office, persons who teach exercise will have one more weapon in their arsenal to go out and convert the masses. And those masses will have one less excuse for participating in perhaps the best type of therapy for their health, and what may turn out to be the biggest life saver of all.


1. Blair, SM. Report on the US Surgeon’s Report on Exercise and Physical Activity and the Health of the American Public. Presented at the 1996 IHRSA national conference, San Diego, CA

2. Paffenbarger, RS, Hyde, RT, Wing, AL, et al. Physical activity, all-cause mortality, and longevity of college alumni. New England Journal of Medicine. 1986;314(10):605-13.

3. Leon, AS, Connet, J, Jacobs, DR, et al. Leisure-time physical activity levels and risk of coronary hear disease and death: The Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial (MR FIT). JAMA. 1987;258(17):2388-95.

4. Fiatarone, MA, Marks, EC, Ryan, ND, et al. High intensity strength training in nonagenarians: effects on skeletal muscle. JAMA. 1990;263(22);3029-34.

5. Golberg, LM, Elliot, DL. Exercise for the Prevention and Treatment of Illness. FA Davis Publishers, Philadelphia, PA, 1994.

6. Bernstein, L, Henderson, BE, Hanisch, R, et al. Physical exercise and reduced risk of breast cancer in young women. Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 1994;86(18):1403-08.

7. Sancier, KM. The medical applications of Qigong. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. 1996;2(1):40-46.

8. Ornish, D. Brown, SE, Scherwitz, LW, et al. Can lifestyle changes reverse coronary heart disease? Lancet. 1990;1:129-33.

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Written by Eric P. Durak MSc

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