by Diann Daniel

Computer Calls Can Motivate Couch Potatoes to Exercise, Says Study

Dec 17, 20072 mins

If starting an exercise program is on your list of 2008 New Year's Resolutions, you may want to get your computer to help.

Computers have at least one way of offsetting a sedentary lifestyle, according to a new study conducted by the Stanford University School of Medicine: They can be used to talk couch potatoes off the couch and into a walking program.

couch poatoes get computer-generated calls urging them to exercise

The study looked at 218 people over the course of a year, a third of whom received frequent calls from a health educator who urged them to exercise for 150 minutes per week and a third who received computer-generated calls that did the same. (One-third of the group received no calls.)

Here’s a sample computer call: “Hello, Mrs. Jones. Your goal last time we talked was to do 30 minutes per day of brisk walking five days per week. Were you able to reach this goal? If yes, press 1; if no, press 2. [If no] what kind of barriers got in your way? If illness, press 1; if weather, press 2.”

Do you think that kind of call would get you to exercise more?

Turns out, it just might. To the researchers’ and participants’ surprise, computer-generated calls worked almost as well as those from a live person. “This is the first study to directly compare the efficacy of a physical activity program delivered by a computer versus humans and found them to work similarly well, ” said Lead Author and Senior Investigator at the Stanford Prevention Research Center Abby King, PhD, in a press release.

About 80 percent of participants, San Francisco Bay Area adults over the age of 55, initially said only a call from a live person could help them consistently exercise or would be preferable. But they were wrong.

Researchers’ goals were to get participants out for a brisk 30-minute walk most days of the week, as recommended by the U.S. Surgeon General. After a year, computer-called participants averaged 157 minutes per week of exercise, those who were called by people averaged 178 minutes per week, and those who received no calls averaged 118 minutes of exercising. From a public health standpoint, above 150 minutes is the important thing, said King.

Although she thought she would hate the computer calls, participant Rita Horiguchi said in the press release that she changed her mind: “I met my goals of walking 30 minutes four days a week. I did it just to satisfy the computer, but the funny thing was, it actually worked.”

Computer-savvy folks may want to start brainstorming on the possibilities such a finding opens up.