A Plea To Couch Potatoes

The U.S. doctor who brought AIDS awareness to the nation and declared war on smoking is setting his sights on the couch potato.

Dr. C. Everett Koop, former U.S. surgeon general, called Wednesday for fitness to be a national health priority, saying that inactivity among Americans has reached "crisis proportions." He's offering an Internet guide to Americans wanting to craft their own fitness plans.

"I have had a lifelong message for patients," he told CBS News on Thursday. "The first of those is, take charge of your health. And in this day of managed care, you could have the caveat because if you don't, no one else will."

"The other sound bite I like: There is no prescription more valuable than knowledge," he adds.

Dr. Koop said living in a technically advanced society makes it far too easy to remain sedentary. An estimated 60 percent of adult Americans are not active on a regular basis, and one in four are not active at all.

"One of the things that everybody in the country is aware of is the obesity of America," says Dr. Koop. "More than half of us are overweight. People think, 'If I diet, I'll be fine.' Diet without exercise is really a lost cause."

Simple changes in routine can make a difference. Dr. Koop, 82, suggested staying in shape by avoiding elevators.

"An intensified effort to motivate Americans, at every age, to be more physically active is essential to reducing premature death in this country," Dr. Koop told a news conference Wednesday.

These inactive persons are known as couch potatoes for their tendency to lounge on furniture in front of the television set.

Dr. Koop is especially concerned with inactivity among young people. "Fat kids become fat adolescents, and fat adolescents become fat people," Koop said.

New scientific studies indicate that fitness may contribute more to a long, healthy life than any other factor, including quitting smoking. Moderate regular activity reduces the likelihood of high blood pressure, heart disease, colon cancer and depression. Even light, intermittent activity such as walking offers health benefits.

Dr. Koop's anti-obesity initiative, "Shape Up America," offers an interactive tool on the World Wide Web that allows users to assess their fitness levels and to develop customized activity programs.

The effort is separate from Inc., a company providing consumer health-care information on the Internet that made its initial public offering of stock Tuesday. Koop's 7 percent stake was worth about $31.5 million at Tuesday's closing price.

Although he has expressed surprised by the stock's success, he has said he wasn't in the venture for the money.

"My venture into the commercial world of cyberspace gets me the opportunity to deliver that message in a way that I never could do in the nonprofit world to millions of people all the time. And so that makes me very pleased," he told I>CBS News.

Dr. Koop served as surgeon general from 1981 to 1989. He advised the public on health matters such as smoking and health, diet and nutrition, environmental health hazards and the importance of immunization and disease prevention. He also was the government's chief spokesman on AIDS. Koop is now senior scholar of the C. Everett Koop Institute at Dartmouth.