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Has America hit an exercise plateau?

One of the keys, officials and doctors say, is to get sedentary people to realize exercise can be fun -- and it doesn't have to mean pounding away at a gym. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Kassie Barnes is a success story.

She has managed to take charge of her life through exercise — reversing serious health problems such as high blood pressure and sleep apnea. She did it all through the power of exercise.

“What it gives you in terms of strength and energy — you can’t find it in a pill,” says the commercial real estate specialist from Kensington, Maryland.

She also lost 80 pounds on her fitness journey, though she says weight loss is not her main goal. Getting healthy is.

Her story is music to the ears of members of a growing movement to convince doctors to use exercise as medicine — a possible alternative to medication in preventing and curtailing a number of chronic illnesses.

The Exercise Is Medicine Initiative was launched in 2007 by the American College of Sports Medicine. But it has taken a big leap forward — partnering with organizations that represent 50 percent of the fitness professionals in the United States.

The idea is to provide physicians with the resources they need to help their patients get on the right track.

“It’s so important that we exercise and we do things to prevent these chronic diseases,” says Dr. Regina Benjamin, the former surgeon general of the United States.

After completing her service as “America’s top doctor” and head of the public health service, Benjamin returned to her post as director of a rural health clinic in Alabama, where she sees firsthand the damage that can be caused by a sedentary lifestyle.

She says exercise is a vital tool for her patients, even if it is as simple as using juice cans for weights, and walking around the block.

“Start exercising, start moving, limber up your joints — those sort of things improve their health and mobility and they are happier,” Benjamin says.

The new alliance between medical and fitness professionals is designed to increase the opportunities for patients to exercise under trained eyes, with reports sent back on a regular basis to the prescribing physician.

It’s a no-brainer to Dr. Pamela Peeke, a physician, fitness expert and assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

She has long been a strong supporter of the effort to use exercise as medicine, and says the possibilities are endless if doctors and the fitness community work in tandem to help patients.

One sticking point for some may be cost: Little, if any, insurance coverage is available for patients seeking help from a fitness professional.

Local community centers and neighborhood clinics can often provide these services for a reasonable price, and Peeke says efforts are being made to convince insurers to provide coverage.

“We are collecting data; we are looking at this; we are scrutinizing this so that we can walk up to anybody, any insurer, and say ‘instead of a $20,000 day in an ICU, how about a $20 membership a month in a particular health club, somewhere to be able to help someone?'” she says.

Word of the new partnership to promote fitness comes amid signs of a plateau in the drive to get adults to adopt a more active lifestyle.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is out with initial results of its 2015 national health survey, which show that while Americans are exercising more than they did a decade ago, the level of improvement has evened out over the last few years.

Just under half the adults participating in the 2015 survey — 49.5 percent — said they meet the standard recommendation for aerobic exercise: at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous intensity physical activity.

“How can we really push that marker way, way up there?” wonders Peeke.

One way is to take away the stereotypes surrounding exercise, and convince the other 50 percent that exercise does not have to be — as Peeke puts it — “a drudge.” She says the key to getting them involved is to make exercise fun and playful.

The surgeon general agrees, and adds that exercises should be a welcome part of everyday life. Benjamin says the stakes are incredibly high — both in terms of lives affected, and health care costs to the nation.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Benjamin is the former surgeon general of the United States.

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