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K-State Today

August 25, 2011

Heat Warnings: Physical activity policies an exercise in progress

By Communications and Marketing


Across the nation athletes of various ages have begun preparations for the upcoming fall sports season. For coaches, it's a time to closely watch practices for top performances and to monitor an important determinant of those efforts: the heat index.

Heat-related athletic deaths have received increased attention in recent years. The development of physical activity policies is a new response to primarily heat-related issues with competitive sports. Creating the most effective policies involves constant revision and evolution, according to a Kansas State University physical activity expert.

Katie Heinrich, assistant professor of kinesiology, says that physical activity policies generally are designed to affect the environment or physical activity itself.

"The idea is that by focusing on the larger population through policies, you will help change the behaviors of many individuals at the same time," she said.

While considerable dialogue on physical activity policies focuses on heat issues, policy development has a broader scope. In 1992 a consensus statement drafted by scientists and public health experts, the Victoria Declaration on Heart Health, called for policies to promote physical activity in combination with health education efforts to eliminate cardiovascular disease. Growth in physical activity policy research has enhanced understanding. The Physical Activity Policy Research Network, which is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity, is investigating the development, implementation and efficacy of physical activity policies. Heinrich is a member of the network.

With heat-related deaths receiving greater attention from the media, questions emerge about inadequate precautions and shortcomings in policy. Athletes may overlook precautions because of the assumption they can better handle the heat, Heinrich said.

"Thus, a coach may get in one more drill, a person may push themselves beyond the pain and disaster can result," Heinrich said. "For example, the young man that died in the August Warrior Dash in Kansas City was a healthy rugby player and a trained runner who worked at a hospital. Could the race organizers have prevented his death?"

Heinrich contends that heat-related deaths are a more sensational topic than physical inactivity, sedentary lifestyles and low physical activity rates.

The Physical Activity Policy Research Network is combating physical inactivity with a number of research studies, including policymakers' knowledge of and attitudes toward physical activity policies, public perceptions of physical activity policies and an analysis of state physical activity plans.

"Ultimately the most important physical activity policies will help shape environments to be more conducive to and supportive of physical activity," Heinrich said. "As obesity rates continue to rise, it's of extreme importance to get people moving in safe and active ways."

Policymaking continues to evolve with new scientific discoveries and political ideology shifts occurring daily, according to Heinrich, who says the process should be interdisciplinary and involve all key stakeholders.

Of the greatest importance is realizing that policies are not foolproof. "Even with the best policy in place, injuries and death may still occur. It is impossible to try and prevent every potential situation," Heinrich said.

Ensuring compliance and that all responsible parties are properly educated about existing policies remain effective practices, she said.