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New research shows that quick e-mail messages and short phone calls can motivate people to exercise.
updated 7/23/2008 4:45:56 PM ET 2008-07-23T20:45:56

Kimberly Thomas-McPherson likes to walk for exercise. But as a single mother of two who works a full-time job at night and goes to college during the day, physical activity isn’t always high on her priority list.

So when Thomas-McPherson, 43, of Atlanta, heard about a pilot study aimed at getting people to stick to their exercise routine, she signed up — and was pleasantly surprised when it gave her program a boost.

What was the secret? E-mail.

In what cynical couch potatoes might view as a whole lot of nagging, Thomas-McPherson received e-mails every other day reminding her of all the benefits of exercise and why it should rank among her top priorities. She didn’t see the messages as nagging, though, more like friendly nudges.

“During the crush of the semester, I was slacking off but the e-mails were very helpful,” she says. "It was just a little push, that, OK, I need to get back on track … It’s kind of like having a virtual support group.”

If an e-mail reminder of your slug-like existence seems about as welcome as spam, consider this: Research is starting to show that some surprisingly simple positive reinforcements — quick e-mail messages and short phone calls — can motivate people to get moving.

‘This can be me’
The study Thomas-McPherson participated in involved 172 sedentary adults who were followed for six weeks. For two of those weeks, one group of volunteers received no intervention while two other groups received persuasive e-mail messages. One of the latter groups also received e-mail images of healthy-looking people exercising who were the same age range and race as the participant.

“The idea was to try to personalize the message to help the person realize, ‘This can be me,’” says Matthew Parrott, an assistant professor of health and fitness management at Clayton State University in Morrow, Ga., “and it turned out to work pretty well.”

At the beginning of the study, participants reported being physically active an average of two times a week. During the intervention period, the group that received both the positive messages and images reported exercising a little more than four times a week, while the group that received only the text messages was exercising almost 3.5 times a week. The control group was exercising three times a week, so even thinking more about exercise because of study participation seemed to help.

A month later — with no more e-mail reminders — the groups that had received encouraging messages still were exercising more than before the study, but were starting to lose some momentum. Parrott says that’s not unexpected and suggests people need constant reinforcement to keep moving.

A call to exercise
Another study, which was presented along with Parrott’s at a recent meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), also found encouraging results with telephone-based coaching for a particularly tough crowd — pregnant and postpartum women. The women who received weekly or biweekly phone calls from an activity coach dispensing advice and pep talks roughly doubled their amount of physical activity over three months.

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“It’s really about making activity a priority,” says study author Beth Lewis, a psychologist and exercise researcher at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Clearly, though, prioritizing exercise is no easy task for Americans, most of whom are sedentary. While some people thrive on exercise and need no nudging to get moving, most don’t find exercise all that fun and need ongoing encouragement, such as from a coach, friend and/or family member, says ACSM spokesperson Walt Thompson, a professor of kinesiology and health at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

The more we surround ourselves with people and programs supporting exercise, the more likely we are to succeed, says Thompson. Even he benefits from having a fitness cheerleader — his wife.

Keep it positive
The key, though, is that the messages be positive, experts say. As Parrott puts it: “It’s better to reinforce than to tear down.”

So it’s probably not going to help if your spouse continually nags you to get off your lazy butt and lose some weight. But it may help if your spouse offers to help you achieve your fitness goals by keeping the kids busy a few times a week so you can hit the gym, or suggests the two of you spend some couples time together by taking tennis lessons on Saturday mornings. Having a workout buddy who motivates you and keeps you accountable can be a big plus.

Tim Wiseman has both virtual and “real-world” helpers to keep him active. He consults over the phone and through e-mail with a coach and also sees a personal trainer at the gym.

With a demanding job as a business consultant that requires long hours and a lot of travel, Wiseman, 39, of Colorado Springs, Colo., says that while he had good intentions, he just couldn’t make fitness happen on his own. “The excuses would pile up more than the execution,” he says.

So he had an initial phone conversation with his coach late last year to get his program started. Now, he communicates a couple times a month with the coach, usually through e-mail, to make sure he’s still on track with his two- or three-day-a-week regimen, which mostly consists of biking, walking or hitting hotel gyms.

“It has really helped keep me accountable in a very supportive way,” he says. “I don’t respond well to the drill sergeant format.”

And Wiseman says his program is getting results. He’s lost 15 pounds in the last nine months and feels stronger, too.

The costs of Web-based coaching can range from nothing to $50 a month on up, depending on how intensive and individualized the services are. But do your homework before shelling out money. The best services offer one-on-one coaching and provide individualized rather than canned advice.

You don’t have to spend big bucks to get fit, though. Parrott says people can take advantage of the Web to join free discussions with online exercise support groups or blogs. Or they can simply find a workout partner in the neighborhood.

Ever since the e-mails stopped, Thomas-McPherson has been missing her “virtual support group” – and her exercise program has suffered a setback. “I haven’t done as well since the study ended,” she admits.

But she’s striving to walk at least two days a week, because she remembers those e-mails touting all the good reasons to exercise. And for this overscheduled woman, there’s one key benefit that she knows first-hand: “It’s a stress-reliever.”

© 2013


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