Computerized phone chats can motivate couch potatoes

Automated telephone calls may be able to promote behavior change among adults who are not meeting the recommended level of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise on most days, according to a new study.

Researchers found that participants who received an automated, computer-based telephone intervention were more likely than a comparison group to increase their level of physical activity after three months. The telephone approach had lost effectiveness by the time researchers conducted a six-month follow-up, however.

Lead researcher Bernardine M. Pinto, Ph.D., called the study, which was published in the August issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, "the first to use telephone delivery of a computerized 'simulation' of physical activity counseling."

The study examined 298 randomly selected participants who were sedentary and had unhealthy diets (for example, high in fat and processed foods). Half of the group received an automated telephone intervention focused on enhancing motivation to engage in moderate-intensity physical activity, such as walking. The other half, a comparison group, received an intervention designed to boost motivation to improve eating habits.

"Like telephone counseling offered by human counselors, we expected that [the system] would overcome problems with scheduling and attending to face-to-face meetings," says Pinto. "Unlike human counselors, [the system] would be accessible at any time and less likely to be perceived as judgmental."

She notes that telephone interventions have been successful in promoting improved health behaviors, including increased physical activity, in a range of populations. In Pinto's study, most participants (72 percent) were women; 45 percent were white, and 45 percent were African American.

Participants called a number and reached a computerized program, which used synthesized speech to ask questions about current activity levels and readiness to c

Contact: Suzanne Moriarty
Center for the Advancement of Health

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