"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, adding that more than half of U.S. adults do not get enough beneficial physical activity, one-quarter are inactive during their leisure time, and more than 60 million are obese. Leavitt said that a lack of exercise is a major part of the $2 trillion spent on health care, three-quarters of which is used to treat chronic disease.
While the government has a vested interest in promoting healthy choices among Americans -- including fruits and vegetables -- Leavitt said that forceful steps such as the proposed trans fat ban in New York City restaurants are not necessary.
"You cannot create a culture of wellness through regulations and penalties," he said. "If we simply burden people with guilt or we appeal only to their fears, it won't happen."
Current government exercise guidelines recommend 30 minutes of physical activity a day minimum, with 60 minutes a day to prevent weight gain, and 90 minutes to promote weight loss. The new guidelines -- recommended by a panel from the Institute of Medicine's Committee on Childhood Obesity -- would establish a process to routinely evaluate the best science on physical activity and make recommendations based on the results.
"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," said MCCO member Dr. Douglas Kamerow.
One natural health expert was less optimistic.
"If the government's exercise guidelines are as useless as its food pyramid guidelines, we're all in for many more decades of rampant obesity," said Mike Adams, creator of the Honest Food Guide, a free downloadable replacement to the USDA's My Pyramid food guide. "Trusting our government to teach us about health is like trusting Big Pharma CEOs to teach us about ethics. Consumers are far better off learning about health on the internet than from any government agency."