By Abigail Tapper, MPH, Research Associate
May is National Physical Fitness and Sports Month. While most people are aware that exercise has health benefits, we don’t always realize how many benefits there are, and there are often barriers in the way. These barriers can be things like lack of transportation, low levels of knowledge, and lack of resources. Later in this post, we will highlight a program that is addressing such barriers. Among youth, physical fitness can lead not only to good cardiovascular health, but improved bone and muscle health. If a child is not physically fit, they are more likely to have high blood pressure, be overweight or obese, and are more likely to have diabetes. Increases in exercise and other activities can lead to lower rates of depression among young people.
Participation in team sports has numerous benefits as well. There are the obvious physical benefits as previously outlined and others pertaining to risk-taking and emotional health: for example, studies have found that participation in team sports leads to an older initial sexual intercourse age, lower risky sexual behavior and, especially for adolescent girls, lower cigarette and drug use. Other studies have found that being part of a sports team leads to improved psychosocial health.
In adults, higher rates of physical activity have been shown to lower the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer. Like in youth, regular physical activity has been shown to lower rates of depressive symptoms in adults. While exercise may not prevent anxiety and depression, research tells us that it alleviates symptoms of both and the benefits are akin to those received from meditation or other forms of relaxation. Several studies have found that exercise can act as a kind of antidepressant, improving mood and lowering neuroticism.,, Other research suggests that when those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol engage in some kind of physical activity in addition to regular substance use treatment, it can act as an “adjunct”, aka a substitute, to the high achieved from those substances. 
For the older population, exercise shows numerous benefits. Physical fitness can lower the risk for falls in older adults as well as improving cognitive function. Adults age 65 and above can lower their risk for osteoporosis and other bone health disorders. Mentally, it improves the feeling of self control and efficacy. Research goes even further to say that adults who exercise more, especially into their 80s and 90s, can expect to live longer.
A program that we would especially like to highlight is one we at ICH have in our proverbial backyard. Shape Up Somerville is a 15 year old initiative aimed at improving the health of all residents of Somerville, as well as visitors and people who work within the city. They do this by increasing access to healthy activities and food, engaging high risk, low income and minority participants, and working to affect systemic change in the actual civic structures within Somerville. Some of the resources they offer are interactive maps of bike routes and walking paths (like those found hereand here), and mobile farmers markets that actually meet residents where they are. These markets come to public spaces and allow residents to shop where and when it’s convenient for them. They also work with restaurants in the area to promote healthy eating. They developed a resource guide that outlines several healthy options at area restaurants. You can look at the guidehere. Since the program’s inception, Somerville has seen a drop in unhealthy snacking among adolescents, a significant increase in the students meeting physical activity goals, and more students reporting that they walk to school. Read more about Shape Up Somerville here.
Another initiative that ICH has worked with is Cambridge Health Alliance’s Wellness Program. CHA’s Wellness program revolves around 4 pillars: Self-care, rest and recovery, movement and nutrition. Each pillar is associated with one of the fiscal quarters, so there is always new wellness programming happening. Each department has their very own wellness champion that staff can go to for advice and resources. These staff are the ones usually implementing the wellness curriculum as well as keeping staff motivated.
ICH worked with CHA to evaluate the success of their wellness program, especially looking at participation rates in the various wellness programs. ICH then gave this feedback to the CHA Wellness team to use to inform their programs for the next year. Overall, participants were satisfied with the various wellness initiatives they participated in. To read more about wellness at CHA, click here.
For more resources, check out the CDC’s healthy month toolkit here.
 Kulig, Kimary, Nancy D. Brener, and Tim McManus. “Sexual activity and substance use among adolescents by category of physical activity plus team sports participation.” Archives of pediatrics & adolescent medicine 157.9 (2003): 905-912.