Fighting Your Inner Sloth


It's report card time again--the much-awaited Surgeon General's Report on Physical Activity and Health is due out Thursday.

Suffice it to say most of us will not be on the exercise honor roll.

But like the teacher who won't give up on lazy students, the report's authors are also expected to shed some light on how to improve our activity habits, drawing on research by exercise adherence experts.

For years, these researchers have puzzled over how to motivate slugs. Just as obesity researchers have begun to focus on successful dieters who have kept off weight for decades, exercise experts are beginning to turn to lifelong exercisers for some answers. They are also looking at nontraditional programs to convince people that moderate physical activity can be fit into the busiest schedule.

Some are viewing the 1996 Olympics as a grand opportunity to drive that activity message home. What better time to become active than during the Games, when physical activity is glamorized, romanticized--and hits couch potatoes where they live. Even if you're downing beer and munching chips as you watch the televised events, Olympic fever might just strike. Suddenly, you hear yourself saying: "Hey, I could do that."

Even thinking about exercise is a good sign, says Patricia Dubbert, chief psychologist at the Jackson VA Medical Center in Jackson, Miss., and a longtime exercise adherence researcher. "You're getting ready," says Dubbert, who with colleagues contends that becoming an exerciser is not an overnight process but involves many stages, including pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance.

Anything that inspires people to exercise is OK with James Sallis, a San Diego State University professor of psychology who also researches exercise adherence. But anyone under the influence of the Olympics should inject some realism into the fantasy. "Role models are most effective when they are most similar to you," Sallis says.

Learning how to make exercise a habit is just as difficult as learning how to give up smoking, contends Andrea Dunn, a researcher at the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas. In an ongoing study of 235 men and women, ages 35 to 65, she is comparing two types of two-year interventions to persuade people to become more active.

During the first six months, one group is asked to work out at a gym at least three times a week for 20 or 30 minutes, working up to a traditional five-day-a-week workout goal. The nontraditional group attends weekly discussion sessions, learning from a health educator how to overcome obstacles to exercise. They can work out at a gym or on their own.

Preliminary results suggest that both groups improved their fitness, although the gym-based group had better results. Members of both groups had equal improvements in such parameters as blood pressure reduction and total cholesterol reduction, Dunn says, proving the nontraditional approach shows promise.


An organized program is often important initially for novices. "When we structure exercise classes as part of a treatment program for [overweight] women, it seems to work well when they come three times a week as part of a study," says Ross Andersen, assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, citing results of his study of 128 women to be published soon in the Journal of Clinical and Consulting Psychology.

But as soon as they're "cut loose" from the schedule, Andersen says, their exercise habits disintegrate.

Motivation to exercise is very individual, Sallis says. "For some people, it's having a group or a buddy. For some it's the pleasure of being alone with their thoughts for a while."

Once people become regular exercisers, they share some characteristics, researchers have found:

* They always have a Plan B. If they intended to go for a walk and it's raining, they head for their exercise bike.

* They see exercise as a welcome break, not an imposition. Last year, Dubbert was in the midst of writing a research grant proposal while keeping up her usual workload. "I'd walk to get my thoughts together. Most of my best ideas have come when I am exercising."

* They reward themselves for sticking with it.

* They expect obstacles. "The flu, blisters, something is going to set you back," Dubbert says. "You have to view that as a bump in the road, not an impassable barrier." In a study of 105 regular exercisers who kept workout diaries for two months, Dubbert and her co-researcher, Barbara Stetson of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, found subjects fell one session short of their goals each week, on average.

* They don't overexert. Serious injury is the main reason adult exercisers drop out, Sallis says. "A long-term exerciser who hasn't dropped out probably has a level of activity that doesn't stimulate serious injuries," he speculates. By keeping his jogging to a moderate pace, three times a week, Sallis hasn't had an injury in 12 years.

* They keep themselves entertained. In a study published in Physical Therapy, men who listened to music while exercising on stationary bikes pedaled 30% longer than they did while pedaling in silence; women averaged 25% longer workouts with music.

* They often exercise in the morning. The later it gets, the more excuses most people find not to work out.

* They've learned how to win those "internal dialogues" about exercise between the inner sloth and the inner athlete. "The exercise part of you has to win these dialogues," Sallis tells his research subjects.

Not that the inner athlete must have the best argument, Sallis says.

Just the last word.

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