Want the Simplest Way to Exercise More? Count Your Steps


Australian researchers found that pedometer-wearing seniors exercised more than twice as much as a control group given identical counseling and instructions.

The Doctor Will See You Now
Giorgos Michalogiorgakis/Flickr

The benefits of exercise for seniors have been well described. They include improvements in physical, emotional and cognitive health, as well as better quality of life.

We know exercise positively influences the course of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, depression, and even some cancers. Yet as seniors age, their exercise routines often suffer and they engage in less physical activity. What strategies can be used to motivate seniors to increase rather than decrease the time they spend in exercise? A recent study by Australian researchers offers one answer.

By the end of three months, the pedometer group had increased their exercise time by 63.0 minutes per week compared to the reported time-only group whose exercise time expanded less than half as much, 30.9 minutes.

The 330 seniors (over the age of 65) recruited were each enrolled in a program which included training, motivational counseling and follow up. Enrollees first met with their primary care doctor who outlined the exercise program, explained its medical benefits and gave a prescription for physical exercise. The researchers then divided the participants into two groups.

In the first group, researchers asked everyone to track and hopefully increase their exercise by simply reporting the actual time they spent. Members of the second group were additionally asked to use a pedometer to count the number of steps they took. Goals were set to increase either steps taken or time spent in exercise incrementally over time.

Over the course of the study, physical exercise counselors made three follow up phone calls to support and encourage the patients' exercise programs, identify barriers and find ways to increase exercise. For example, both groups were encouraged to walk to perform local errands and social visits rather than drive. In addition to total exercise time for each group, researchers compared blood pressure, body mass index (BMI), number of falls and quality of life between the two groups. The period of intervention was three months and the study goals were reassessed 12 months from the onset.

Based on previous research, the investigators expected that the pedometer group would be more motivated to increase their daily steps and therefore spend more time exercising. Indeed, by the end of three months, the pedometer group had increased their exercise time by 63.0 minutes per week compared to the reported time-only group whose exercise time expanded less than half as much, 30.9 minutes.

By the end of a year, the pedometer group was still ahead, though the number of minutes of added exercise had dropped to 49.6 while the results for the reported time-only group, 28.1, was only slightly lower. This was the only significant difference between the two groups but both showed lowered blood pressure, supporting the important role of exercise in the management of hypertension. Neither group showed a difference in BMI and neither group experienced more falls.

The researchers concluded that the pedometer was an effective motivator for increasing the amount of time seniors spend exercising. They speculated that it provided a visual monitor which gave positive feedback as the pedometer clearly showed seniors how simple changes in habits can add up to large changes in total daily/weekly steps. Regardless of the intervention type, the improved exercise regimen persisted for at least one year from the start of the program.

The study was reported in the May 2012 issue of the Annals of Family Practice.

This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, an Atlantic partner site.

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Esther Entin, M.D., is a pediatrician and clinical associate professor of Family Medicine at Brown University's Warren Alpert School of Medicine. She writes for TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com.

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