A Little Nudge (to Exercise) Goes a Long Way

New study shows getting a reminder can enhance exercise compliance.

Sheri Colberg-Ochs By Sheri Colberg-Ochs, PhD

How can you get yourself to exercise more regularly? Apparently, the answer may be as simple as getting a little reminder to do it on occasion. An article that appeared in May in the Wall Street Journal reported on the latest findings of a study that effectively enhanced exercise compliance. The study, which was conducted by researchers at Stanford University, included 218 people who were divided into three groups. The subjects' goal was to walk half an hour most days of the week, but what made this study unique was that a Stanford health educator called all the participants on the phone every three weeks or so over the course of a full year to ask them about their compliance. A second group of participants received computerized calls that made similar inquiries.

Regardless of whether the caller was human or a computer, the participants had to report the amount of exercise they performed during the past week. They were congratulated on any exercise performed and asked how the level might be increased for the next week. When lapses occurred due to illness, travel, or unforeseeable events, the call simply focused on reinforcing the importance of resuming workouts as soon as possible. All questions were positive, that is, designed to encourage rather than to berate participants.

After 12 months, the people receiving calls from a live person were exercising on average about 178 minutes a week, a 78% increase from their starting level of about 100 minutes. Exercise levels in the group receiving computerized calls doubled to 157 minutes a week. A control group receiving no calls exercised 118 minutes a week, up 28% from their initial level. Thus, it appears that knowing that you will have to report back to someone or something every few weeks about your exercise may be motivating.

This study is just one of a rapidly growing body of research showing that small amounts of social support, ranging from friends who encourage each other by email to do more physical activity to occasional meetings with a fitness counselor, can produce large and lasting gains in targeting sedentary behavior, which is undeniably one of Americans' biggest health problems. Less than half of all adults in the United States meet recommendations of exercising half an hour most days of the week. Moreover, nearly all sedentary people at one time or another have resolved and failed to maintain participation in regular exercise programs. (Are you one of them? If so, don't despair!)

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Last Modified Date: February 15, 2013

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