Publishing health guidelines alone is not enough to improve health outcomes

School of Public Health study shows strategic communication is key to informing relevant audiences about health guidelines
September 1, 2020

The modern American lifestyle has taken a toll on our health. Cars have replaced biking or walking, desk jobs have become far more common, and technology coaxes us to spend more time on the couch.

Although regular physical activity is important for reducing the risk of several ailments, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer, most Americans do not get the recommended amount of daily exercise.

To help address this lack of physical activity, Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans is published every 10 years, with the latest guidelines published in 2018. Although the process for developing these guidelines is well established, the process for communicating them with the public is less clear.

“Physical activity guidelines can be really complex, so we need to make sure that they are communicated to relevant audiences clearly and effectively to help improve health outcomes,” said Jay Maddock, PhD, FAAHB, a professor at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health.  “The media plays a big role in the communication of these guidelines, since most American adults still get their news from television. However, most governmental health guidelines are not published with a formal communication dissemination plan, which may mean that the guidelines are not being communicated to the public in the best way possible.”

Given the low level of knowledge around the 2008 guidelines and the fact that most American adults still get their news from mass media, both on television and newspapers as well as online, Maddock published a study in Preventative Medicine Reports that examined which guidelines were covered by mass media in reporting the second edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

The results of his study highlighted the importance of strategic communication in public health research. The major recommendations for the 2018 guidelines were covered in most media sources, with the guidelines for adults, children and young children receiving a high level of coverage. However, special populations, including older adults and pregnant and postpartum women, were covered very infrequently. None of the media stories mentioned the physical activity recommendations for adults with disabilities or chronic conditions. Since these groups tend to be less active, this oversight could exacerbate health disparities.

“A majority of American adult have a disability including conditions like arthritis and lower back pain that effect mobility,” Maddock said. “Many people believe that if your back hurts, you shouldn’t move. But for most people who have back pain, getting physical activity is one of the best things that you can do. If those people with back pain are informed through strategic communication that they should still be getting 30 minutes of exercise every day, then that can really make a difference in their health outcomes.”

An ideal communication dissemination plan would include information on how to communicate physical activity guidelines for all populations, especially those that are vulnerable to not getting enough exercise, such as adults with disabilities or chronic conditions. An ideal communication dissemination plan would also take into account the limited amount of time the media may have to discuss the physical activity guidelines.

In addition to targeting the media, a communication dissemination plan should provide communication guidelines to physicians and public health professionals, as well as other entities that can promote physical activity among populations, such as daycare centers, senior living centers and schools. Finally, Maddock emphasized that communication dissemination plans should include actionable steps that focus on incorporating exercise into daily life to make meeting physical activity guidelines easier for people. These actionable steps could be something as simple as parking further away so that 10 minutes of walking is required to reach your destination.

“We’ve done such a good job taking physical activity out of everyday life, now we need to focus on building it back in,” Maddock said. “Strategically communicating physical activity guidelines with the public can help.”

-by Callie Rainosek

— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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