Researchers: Keep Clicking to Get Fit

Maybe you're looking at your sedentary lifestyle the wrong way.

All of the time in front of a computer, like right now, doesn't have to work against your fitness regime.

According to a new study, all of the motivation you need is right at your fingertips.

Web-based intervention programs are just as effective as more traditional print-based programs in changing the habits of sedentary adults, a new study published in Monday's issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine found.

Dr. Bess Marcus of the Miriam Hospital's Centers for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine and professor of psychiatry and human behavior at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University was the lead author of the study, and said that these findings are promising for organizations and health care facilities that use print-based programs to help people increase their physical activity.

"We've been studying print for years, and we know we can increase physical based activities, but print has its limitations, because feedback is not immediate. It's all very customized, but with print there is a time delay, so we were excited to try and see if the Internet is a way to deliver the program. And we were quite excited to find it works just as well," Marcus said.

A team of researchers studied 249 healthy, sedentary (less than 90 minutes of physical activity per week) adults. Participants were divided into three different programs: tailored Internet, standard Internet and tailored print.

The tailored print and Internet groups had exactly the same features, including personalized feedback that the standardized group did not have. The researchers wanted to be sure the tailored groups had exactly the same features in order to test the method of delivery.

This meant that there were a lot of features that were left out of the Internet group, such as chat rooms and blogs, because there was no way to replicate those in a print format.

The standard Internet group, however, accessed what the researchers felt were the six best physical activity sites available to the public. Marcus said the American Heart Association's "Just Move" was the most popular website.

The other five included Shape Up America, the Mayo Clinic Fitness and Sports Medicine Center, American Academy of Family Physicians, American Council on Exercise, and American College of Sports Medicine Health and Fitness Information.

All three groups kept logs of their activities and filled out monthly questionnaires.

The tailored Internet group posted the biggest gains in physical activity after six months, averaging 120 minutes per week. The tailored print group was not far behind with 112.5 minutes per week, and the standard Internet group reported 90 minutes.

The difference was not as notable after 12 months, with the groups reporting 90, 90 and 80 respectively.

The three programs only focused on increasing physical activity, and did not take eating habits into account. Marcus said many of the people in the program reported zero activity at the beginning of the program, making the gains by all groups even more impressive.

The researchers were surprised that the tailored Internet group did not have stronger gains over the standardized Internet group. They suspect that the reason may be that while they offered more personalized feedback to the tailored group, Marcus said it did not have the "bells and whistles" usually associated with Internet fitness and weight-loss programs.

Marcus believes adding those features would allow for these Internet programs to cast a wide net, beyond medical communities, and into gyms and even the workplaces that contribute to the scourge of inactivity in our culture.

This study shows that the Internet is a more cost-effective way to reach the 55 percent of Americans who do not meet the Surgeon General's minimum requirement of 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity physical exercise.

And since motivation is key, the Internet offers a 24-hour smorgasbord of options to keep people clicking for more.

In the future she said they would like "to investigate some of the features that build community, bulletin boards, chat rooms, blogs. We think there's a lot of opportunities to integrate this into something like a YMCA. This program can help people do the thinking and planning to use the facility more often. Also a company could use a site like this, having a prevention program can really help with the bottom line, and reduce stress."

Marcus was quick to point out that anyone with an Internet connection does not need to wait for the perfect website or a company-sponsored program to get moving. And these programs are not just for completely sedentary folks either.

If you're the sort of person who occasionally ventures off your couch to get moving, you may have the smoothest transition into an active lifestyle. Marcus said for the people in the study who were already doing something - as long as it is in at least 10 minute intervals - had the easiest time getting into a regular routine of exercise.

The key to get moving out of your office chair or recliner, Marcus said, is to take baby steps instead of walking lunges. She recommended that with low expectations, it is much easier to exceed those goals.

Starting small is even easier than you think, according to Marcus. If you're heading out to lunch or dinner, because all this thinking about activity has you famished, try walking to your dining spot, carry your lunch to a park, or at least park your car a short walk away from the restaurant.

"Write in an appointment to take that walk with yourself, the same way you keep a meeting or a doctors appointment," Marcus suggests. "We're a nation of multi-taskers already but most of us don't have time to add another 150 minutes a week, but we could find time to be active while we're already doing something else."

Check out the websites Marcus and her team deemed the six best:

American Heart Association's "Just Move"

Shape Up America

Mayo Clinic Fitness and Sports Medicine Center

American Academy of Family Physicians

American Council on Exercise

American College of Sports Medicine Health and Fitness Information