<i> Roark is a Times staff writer who specializes in medicine and science</i>

Americans have become remarkably health conscious. According to a Los Angeles Times Poll, they are exercising and reading the labels of food packages. They are cutting down on sugar, alcohol and, especially, red meat. They are eating more vegetables and drinking more water.

Not everyone is pursuing virtue at the dinner table or in a health club, but many Americans, especially women, say good health is what they want most out of life. And, increasingly, they are willing to make sacrifices to get what they want.

Given only one choice, the survey asked, what is the most important thing in life: to be creative, famous, powerful, wealthy, healthy?


Of the 3,583 Americans interviewed, only 1% wanted power, 5% wealth, 6% creativity, 8% success; 10% wanted a happy marriage, 16% wanted to help others. But a striking 50% of all adults--43% of men and 55% of women--said they wanted health and a long life above all else, confirming the popular adage, “If you have your health, you have everything.”

The Times Poll, directed by I. A. Lewis, conducted its survey of good health by telephone during this past summer. On a survey of this size and complexity, the margin of error is estimated to be 2 percentage points in either direction.

Apparently spurred by growing publicity about the virtues of exercise, the majority of American adults--53% of women and 60% of men--say that they exercise regularly.

When asked whether they had in fact exercised the week before, however, an overwhelming majority--90% of men and 85% of women--said they had engaged in some kind of physical activity or sport in recent days, suggesting that almost all Americans exercise sporadically, even if they don’t work out regularly.

The most popular form of activity was walking (39%), followed by swimming (15%), bicycling (8%) and jogging (7%).

“Not surprisingly,” Lewis says, “the poll also shows that people who were well-to-do and single were more likely than others to exercise. For reasons that aren’t immediately apparent, liberals and conservatives are more likely than middle-of-the-roaders to be involved in exercise. And Republicans are also somewhat more likely than Democrats to be frequent exercisers . . . confirming the notion that exercise is an an upscale occupation.”


Southern Californians, who by reputation wrote the primer on good looks and healthy life styles, are, in fact, more likely to exercise than are people living in any other part of the country. While more than half of all Americans said they exercise regularly, nearly two-thirds of Californians said they are habitual exercisers.

New Englanders are also frequent exercisers, The Times Poll found, but, according to a survey released last summer by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, New Yorkers are the most sedentary of all Americans.

Weather does not seem to explain fully the higher exercises rate in Southern California, according to The Times Poll.

Even though most Americans say they exercise outdoors at least part of the time, inclement weather does not seem to deter them from their activities. Only about one of four people outside Southern California complained that it was sometimes too hot or too cold to exercise, and nearly one of five Southern Californians says he or she faced similar difficulties, despite the general perception that the weather is nearly always mild in their part of the world.

Contrary to popular opinion, Californians are not as hedonistic or vain as the rest of the country would like to believe. They are less likely than other Americans to exercise simply to improve their looks, and they are somewhat more likely to exercise for better health, although the majority of all Americans say their primary reason for exercising is to make themselves healthier.

Californians are also more likely than other Americans to be injured at sports; they spend slightly more money on buying equipment and paying health-club dues to make themselves healthier and they are more determined than other Americans to choose vacation spots where it is possible to exercise.

While Americans seem to be exercising more than they used to do, they are not exercising nearly as much as doctors believe they should to keep their bodies trim and to keep their internal organs, such as their hearts and lungs, fit.


Only about 8% of adult Americans are getting as much exercise as the now-standard government recommendation for the level and type of exercise desirable for good health, according to surveys released this summer by the Centers for Disease Control. Basically that recommendation is that healthy adults should spend 15 to 25 minutes a day, three to four days a week, doing some form of exercise vigorous enough to elevate breathing and heart rates but not so vigorous that it becomes impossible to talk comfortably.

According to the CDC studies, another 34% of American adults were “regularly active,” that is they walked or did some other kind of physical activity at least three times a week for a minimum of 20 minutes a session but at levels of intensity below those now recommended.

The Times Poll shows that the typical American reported spending 6.3 hours a week on strenuous exercise, considerably higher than the CDC estimates suggest. The discrepancy between these and other surveys may in part be due to what has been found in studies at USC and elsewhere: some people, particularly highly competitive, compulsive Type A personalities, tend to overestimate the time they spend exercising.

“Doing exercise, to one person, might mean running for 40 minutes. To another, it might mean stooping and bending or touching the toes 10 times a day,” says Gregory Heath, a CDC epidemiologist and exercise physiologist.

Whereas The Times Poll allowed people to define for themselves what it means to “exercise regularly” and what is meant by “strenuous exercise,” the CDC surveys asked very precise, detailed questions and applied rigorous definitions to those answers. The end result is that people probably are not exercising quite as much as they think they are, Heath says.

Nonetheless, Heath adds, it is “quite true” that health consciousness is on the rise--at least in some parts of the country and among some socio-economic groups.

“Because of many factors, partly just life style . . . the likelihood that people are exercising in Los Angeles is much greater than it is in Dubuque, Iowa,” Heath says.


Women and the elderly seem to be exercising a good deal more than they once did, whereas blue-collar workers are exercising less, the government surveys show. Whether it is working on the docks unloading ships or collecting trash, many low-paying, manual jobs are becoming increasingly automated so that blue-collar workers are expending less physical energy at work. At the same time, Heath says, the people who hold such jobs do not seem to be nearly as attracted to leisure-time exercise activities as are better-educated, more well-to-do Americans.

Yet exercise is not the most important step people say they have taken during the past year to improve their health. Going on a diet was cited as the most significant action taken by nearly a third of those interviewed by The Times.

Despite pronouncements from the fashion world that well-muscled, voluptuous bodies are now in style, most Americans seem to think that thin is in. As a result, twice as many women think they are overweight as really are. While 48% of women say they are too heavy, only 25% actually are, according to a formula for proper weight devised by the CDC. Men, on the other hand, are somewhat less likely to be overweight and they are also less likely to think they weigh too much. While 39% say they weigh more than they should, 22% really are overweight, according to the CDC scale.

(People who are underweight, for the most part, think they are the proper weight. And almost everyone who is overweight know s he or she is overweight.)

While many Americans think they need to diet, giving up food may be the most difficult of all steps for people to take in their quest for better health. Although only one in five Americans says it is hard to exercise and one in four says it is difficult to quit smoking, one in three says that it is hardest to cut down on food. It is hard for both men and women, although women do have a somewhat tougher time dieting, as they have a somewhat tougher time exercising than men do.

Despite these difficulties, one in five men and one in three of women say they are now on a diet, although the vast majority--96% of the men and 82% of the women--have never used commercial diets such as Weight Watchers or NutriSystems.

Sweets are by far the biggest temptation for American adults. Two out of three pick ice cream, cake, chocolate, candy, cookies or doughnuts as the food they have the most trouble resisting. Pizza comes in a distant second, with 8% reporting this delicacy as their Achilles heel.


While they may like foods that are not terribly good for them, Americans, and especially Californians, are now mindful enough of what they eat that they have taken to reading the labels of food products. About 59% of Southern Californians and 50% of people elsewhere say they now routinely look at labels before making purchases. Many report that they have given up or cut down on some foods: 23% say they eat less red meat; 19% say they drink less beer, wine or hard liquor; 12% say they consume less sugar.

Similarly, many people claim to be eating more of some healthful foods. Water and vegetables, for example, top the list of consumables that are on the rise in popularity. According to The Times Poll, 21% of Americans are drinking more water today than they did five years; 21% are eating more vegetables; 15% are eating more fruits. Fish, poultry and diet drinks are also on the rise.

Overall, relatively few people reported consuming much in the way of liquor. Of those surveyed, 69% of women and 46% of men say they don’t drink at all. The majority of people who do drink consume relatively little--less than a glass of wine, beer or one drink of hard liquor a day.

Smoking is a habit that virtually everyone said they want to give up. Yet 23% of women and 9% of men have never even gone one day without a cigarette.

Stress is one of the factors, along with improper diet and inadequate exercise, that is thought to contribute to heart disease and other health problems. Two of three Americans say they regularly experience stress and one of three reports having a great deal of stress. Women are more likely than men to find stress in their lives. And Californians are quite a bit less likely than other Americans to lead stressful lives.

The No. 1 stress reliever in American is to do nothing. One of three says he or she does not do anything in particular to relieve stress. The second most popular remedy is exercise, used as a stress-reducer by 17% of the population as a whole and 20% of Californians.


Are you overweight or underweight or about the right weight?

Men: Women

Overweight: 39%: 48% Right weight: 53%: 45% Underweight: 8% : 7% Actual government figures

Overweight: 22%: 24% Right weight: 71%: 69% Underweight: 7% : 7% What kind of physical activity or sport did you engage in most during the last 7 days?

Walking: 39% Swimming: 15% Bicycling: 8% Jogging: 7% Golf: 5% Weightlifting: 5% Steps taken during the last year to improve your health

Gone on diet: 34% Exercise strenuously: 19% Cut out alcohol: 7% Quit smoking: 7% Other steps: 4% Did nothing: 29% The single food that you have the most trouble resisting

Cake: 16% Chocolate: 15% Ice cream: 15% Candy: 12% Pizza: 8% Cookies: 7% What’s the most important bad habit you have that is hurting your health?

Smoking: 26% Eating wrong foods: 18% Eating too much: 15% Drinking: 9% Not exercising: 8% Taking drugs: 2% No bad habits: 20%