NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – No more excuses for staying sedentary — new research shows that a variety of tricks and tools, from motivational programs to scheduling workouts to suit a busy life, can get people off the couch.

Walking is a form of exercise that most people can manage. Experts generally recommend that adults get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise on most days of the week, with a brisk walk being one of the simplest ways to reach that goal.

“But the issue has been how to get people to do that,” said Dr. David Williams of Brown Medical School and the Miriam Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. “More importantly,” how do you get people to keep exercising?

Williams and his colleagues reviewed 14 clinical trials that have tested various strategies for getting sedentary people to start walking.

Among the ones showing promise are “non-face-to-face” interventions where people get phone calls or online help to motivate them to exercise, the researchers report in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

Only a handful of studies have been done, but such interventions have the potential to reach a broad audience — and make it more practical for busy people to get exercise advice, Williams told Reuters Health.

So far, studies suggest that quick phone calls prompting people to get off the couch are as effective as more-involved counseling over the phone. “It seems to be the frequency of the phone calls that matters most, rather than the content,” Williams said.

Web-based programs — where people fill out online questionnaires then receive individualized exercise advice, plus tips via email — have also shown promise.

When it comes to the most effective walking “prescriptions,” Williams and his colleagues found, it seems that high-frequency, moderate-intensity beats lower-frequency, high-intensity. Exercisers generally fare better walking at a moderate pace, 5 to 7 days a week, rather than striving for an intense pace a few times per week.

“Over time, people tend to walk more,” Williams said.

Another tactic for the newly active is to break up their workouts into shorter bouts throughout the day — such as three 10-minute walks instead of 30 minutes all at once. In the end, studies show, people generally get just as much exercise taking the short-bout route.

It could help people with limited time fit exercise into their lives, Williams said.

He also recommended that new exercisers tell their family, friends and co-workers about their lifestyle change. Having support for your exercise efforts can help, particularly if someone else becomes your “walking buddy,” Williams noted.

Finally, people should be aware that when they first become active, they may not experience that storied runner’s (or walker’s) “high,” Williams pointed out. In fact, exercise often feels less than pleasurable initially.

However, Williams said, many people feel good once the workout is over. And over time, the activity itself becomes enjoyable.

“If you stick with it,” he said, “that’s when you’re likely to have the mood benefits you always hear about.”

SOURCE: Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, July 2008.

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