Exercise Discipline

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People with diabetes are constantly told about the importance of exercise: how it can increase cardiovascular health, maintain weight loss, and help control blood glucose levels by increasing insulin sensitivity. But for many if not most people, finding the time and motivation to set and then actually achieve exercise goals is an ongoing struggle. What does it take to stay on track? The answer, according to a study recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal, may be: someone who checks in with you.

In the study, conducted at Stanford University, 218 adult participants were given health-education classes in which they were told about the benefits of walking for 30 minutes most days of the week. Then, they were split into three groups for follow-up: One group received personal phone calls, first every two weeks and then each month; one group received calls from an automated, interactive computer system; and the final group received no follow-up calls. In both the personal and computer-led calls, participants were asked how much exercise they had performed, commended for any exercise, and asked to think about how they could exercise more. After six months, the real-person follow-up group was exercising an average of 171 minutes each week, compared with 100 minutes at the start. The automated follow-up group did even better with an average of 180 minutes of exercise, compared with 78 minutes. The no-call group saw a negligible increase from 92 to 101 minutes. After 12 months, participants in the real-person follow-up group saw a further increase in exercise hours, to 178 minutes, while participants in the automated follow-up group saw a decrease to 158 minutes. The no-call group saw an increase, to 118 minutes.

This study has a few limitations inherent to its structure. First, participants were asked to self-report their weekly physical activity. It is possible that some participants, under pressure to give good results, exaggerated the amount of exercise they accomplished. Another factor to consider is that since participation in the study was voluntary, only people with a certain level of commitment to increasing their exercise level were likely to become participants in the first place. But assuming that participants were at least mostly honest in their reporting, it seems that feeling even slightly accountable to someone else can lead to significantly more motivation to exercise.

What do you think — do feel more motivated to exercise when you have another person, or a group, to whom you report? Is it practical, in the real world, to expect another person to ask you how much you’re exercising? Do you have any suggestions for making it easier to stick to an exercise routine? (Click here for tips on making exercise more fun.) Leave a comment below!

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