FRIDAY, Jan. 12, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- TV's "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" got plenty of exercise just practicing her special brand of medicine in the rugged Old West. But her creator -- award-winning actress Jane Seymour -- admits to being a lot more proactive when it comes to protecting her health.
And to prove she practices what she preaches, Seymour was in New York City this week to help launch the American Heart Association's (AHA) new program, Start!, which encourages Americans and U.S. businesses to adopt healthier lifestyles through exercise -- especially walking -- and better nutrition.
"Dr. Quinn was riding her horse and working outdoors, but we don't have that lifestyle anymore. People are less active due to technology," said Seymour, who is a spokeswoman for the AHA and has been active in promoting heart health.
Part of the problem is that Americans are spending more time at work than ever before -- 164 hours more a year, or nearly three weeks, than 20 years ago. But that work is more sedentary than in years past. Equally important is the fact that two-thirds of Americans are overweight, a significant risk factor for heart disease and stroke as well as high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels, according to the AHA.
Each year, Americans suffer 1.2 million heart attacks, and cardiovascular disease and stroke are the nation's number one and number three killers, respectively, claiming 870,000 lives annually.
Yet, adults may gain as much as two hours of life expectancy for each hour of regular vigorous exercise, such as walking, even if they don't begin exercising until middle age, according to the heart association.
Barry A. Franklin, director of cardiac rehabilitation at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., and an American Heart Association volunteer, said the Start! goal of "approaching businesses is very innovative.
"Most people spend a good deal of time at work, and if the work environment is user-friendly, with food choices and structured exercise, there are many benefits," he said.
The desired result: Employees will be more fit, productivity will improve, and absenteeism will decrease. And studies have shown that healthy work policies can reduce health care costs for companies by six to 12 percent, he said.
Dr. Raymond J. Gibbons, president of the American Heart Association and professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Rochester, Minn., said that while many forward-looking companies are already addressing the issues of exercise and nutrition, there's much to be done.
"Physical inactivity is a big problem in this country," said Gibbons, adding that less than 50 percent of the population exercises regularly. "I ask my patients, 'What is the longest distance you've walked without stopping in the past three months?' And people sit and ponder and answer that they walk one block or that they walk while at the grocery store."
Lack of physical activity, coupled with longer work hours, prompted the AHA to create Start! -- to encourage corporations and their employees to embrace physical activity and healthier eating in the workplace, Gibbons said.
Walking is a key component of Start!
"Walking is accessible, free and has the lowest drop-out rate of any exercise," Gibbons said. "Everybody can do it, and no equipment is necessary."
Other key elements of Start! include an online fitness and nutrition tracker that motivates employees to improve their fitness; a corporate recognition program that honors employers who create a culture of physical activity in the workplace; and a walking program that motivates and rewards employees who become physically active.
One company has already received Start!'s first platinum-level recognition award for its healthy employee programs. The pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, based in Wilmington, Del., and one of three national sponsors of Start! (the others are Subway and Healthy Choice), has several programs for its approximately 12,000 U.S. employees. They include walking programs to encourage physical activity during the workday; "sneaker days" to prompt people to exercise at work; and an online health risk assessment questionnaire for employees and free on-site health screenings.
"It is incumbent upon corporations in America to take the initiative to help people become physically active," said Tony Zook, AstraZeneca's president and chief executive officer.
People who register for Start! online before Feb. 5 can receive free recorded phone calls from celebrities encouraging them to start walking and eating more healthfully. Besides Seymour, the greeters include former Miss America Vanessa Williams, TV personality Vanna White, TV news host Robin Roberts and Subway sandwich spokesman Jared Fogle. The first 10,000 people who register for Start! will receive a gift, according to the heart association.
To learn more about Start!, visit the American Heart Association.