Celebrating Physical Fitness Month and Longer Lives


© US Department of Health and Human Services blog

May is National Physical Fitness and Sports Month, an annual celebration dedicated to emphasizing the importance of physical fitness and health and encouraging society to embrace a more active lifestyle. Led in part by the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition, the month highlights the importance of instilling habits of physical activity and fitness in young children. For all age groups, exercise and a generally healthy lifestyle have countless immediate and long-term benefits, from healthy weight maintenance to lower cholesterol and blood pressure. Furthermore, research shows exercise boosts mood and increases energy and attentiveness, thereby simultaneously improving mental health.
When encouraging the general public to lead a healthier lifestyle, one issue that emerges is the health discrepancies between different segments of the population. However, in some places that is starting to change: a recently published New York Times article discusses findings suggesting that the life expectancy of black Americans—historically lower than that of white Americans due to a variety of factors—has been steadily rising, especially in comparison to white Americans, over the last few years. Looking at trends starting in the early 1900s, certain widespread events, such as the Influenza Pandemic of 1918, World War I or the Great Depression, have adversely affected the mortality rates of all Americans. However, in 1900 the life expectancy of black Americans was nearly 15 years less than that of whites and while that gap closed to some extent, it remained lower than whites, particularly for black men, throughout the century. This was in large part due to the discrimination, segregation and economic exclusion faced by black Americans, many of whom remained in poor living environments with minimal or no access to health care. Additionally, the Vietnam War in the 1960s and the Crack epidemic and increase in homicides in the 1980s and early 1990s disproportionately reduced life spans for Black men.
In 1990 the gap between blacks and whites was seven years, which is the reason why Arthur Ashe founded the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health in conjunction with SUNY Downstate. Since its founding in 1992, its mission has been to address health disparities in multi-ethnic Brooklyn neighborhoods and increase resources for after-school enrichment programs and research and advocacy initiatives in order to enable individuals to improve their health.
Today, the gap between black and white life expectancy in the United States is the lowest it has ever been. Death rates from cancer have fallen 29% between 1995 and 2013, and are continuing to fall. Smoking rates have gone down among black Americans, and overall drug use has been drastically reduced. While these are all undoubtedly positive steps forward, there still remains much progress to be made in order to ensure that black Americans are not only living longer, but are also leading healthier, more active lives.
Although May is a month specifically designated to consideration of these ideas, health and well-being should be a constant priority. The benefits of exercise and a healthy lifestyle are numerous and can lead enhanced quality of life further down the line. Unfortunately, as the discrepancies in lifespan between black and white Americans are shrinking, the discrepancy between rich and poor Americans is increasing. As a nation, we need to make sure that we are enabling our friends, families, and fellow citizens to be the best (and healthiest) versions of themselves, across all populations.
Read more about National Physical Fitness and Sport Month here
Read the full New York Times piece here

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