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Take the call for health's sake!

Periodic advice and encouragement over the phone could help motivate couch potatoes get some exercise, says study.

health and fitness Updated: Dec 12, 2007 14:05 IST
Amy Norton

Telephone calls, whether from a person or a computer, may help motivate couch potatoes to get some exercise, new research suggests. In a study of sedentary adults age 55 and up, researchers found that those who received periodic advice and encouragement over the phone were able to boost their exercise levels over one year. And it didn't matter whether the advice came from a human or a computer.

The findings suggest that automated phone systems could offer a cost-efficient way to reach the legions of inactive Americans, according to the researchers. Based on earlier, short-term research, "we thought that the 'automated advisor' would do well," lead researcher Dr Abby C King told Reuters Health.

But it was surprising how well the automated system worked over the long term, added King, a professor of health research and policy at Stanford University School of Medicine in California.

For the study, which is published in the journal Health Psychology, the researchers randomly assigned 218 healthy but sedentary adults to one of three groups: one that received periodic phone calls from a health counselor to check on their exercise progress; one that received similar calls from an automated phone system; and a "control" group that was offered weekly health education classes.

Participants in both phone-counseling groups first met with a health educator who helped them devise an exercise plan. After that, they received phone calls to follow their progress and to help them overcome any obstacles to staying active. The automated system was designed to be as "human-friendly" as possible, King explained.

The system called each study participant by name, and asked them questions about their exercise progress; they responded using their phone keypad. After one year, men and women in the automated-phone group were averaging 157 minutes of exercise per week; those who spoke with a real person were getting an average of 178 minutes.

Going into the study, the goal had been to get people exercising for 150 minutes per week or 30 minutes per day, five days per week. Automated phone systems might offer a more cost-efficient way to reach sedentary Americans than systems that rely on human callers, according to King.

The goal now, she noted, is to figure out which groups of people seem to do especially well with automated phone systems, and which ones may need the human touch. King said that a range of organisations could potentially run such phone-based programs -- whether computer- or human-driven.

The list includes local colleges, health insurance companies, health clinics and organisations such as the American Heart Association.

(SOURCE: Health Psychology, November 2007).