Movements to get more Americans up and exercising are happening all across the country. Whether it’s creating safe, walkable communities or incentivizing employee wellness programs, the importance of exercise is at the front of everyone’s minds. And for good reason. More than 9 in 10 Americans do not meet the National Physical Activity Guidelines’ recommendation of getting 150 minutes per week of moderate to intense physical activity. That’s staggering, especially since the known benefits of physical activity include not only weight loss, but also the prevention of heart disease, cancer, depression, and a host of other chronic diseases.
Since millions of Americans are not meeting the recommendations for physical activity, health care providers are exploring ways to increasingly emphasize the importance of physical activity in their medical practices.
Kaiser Permanente in Southern California is one health provider that has been at the forefront of this movement. Through partnerships with more than 4,000 physicians at 14 hospitals and 200 medical offices, KPSC is able to provide comprehensive health care services for 3.4 million residents in Southern California.
One of the ways they have accomplished this is through promoting the health benefits of a more physically active lifestyle among patients. They are one of the first health care service providers to log patients’ physical activity levels in their electronic health records as part of the Exercise as a Vital Sign program.
When we think of vital signs, we often think of the four stats that are usually measured when we visit the doctors’ office: pulse, blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration. But since exercise is such an important factor in maintaining health and warding off chronic diseases, providers at KP have called for exercise to be included as a vital sign.
To assess exercise as a vital sign, physicians at Kaiser Permanente routinely check and record patients’ physical activity. They do this by asking patients how many days per week they engage in moderate to strenuous exercise and the average number of minutes per day they exercise at that level. Responses are recorded in patients’ electronic health records.
While the best way to assess physical activity levels is still debated, this approach at least gives physicians a way to begin the discussion with their patients’ about the importance of having a physically active lifestyle. And while more physicians are incorporating exercise as a vital sign into their practices, the significance of the program also shows promising results.
In a 2013 study, researchers found that asking patients about physical activity levels was associated with weight loss and improved glucose control in diabetic patients. Many providers see this as not only a way to get the conversation started with patients about living healthier, more physically active lives, but also an opportunity to connect them with resources that can help them manage their health.