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UGA study shows employer-sponsored workouts increase physical activity

UGA study shows employer-sponsored workouts increase physical activity

Athens, Ga. – A workplace program that encourages employees to set exercise goals substantially increased workers’ physical activity, according to a new study by University of Georgia exercise and health researchers.

For three months, 1,442 participants set weekly personal and team physical activity goals and received incentives for meeting them. After six weeks, 51 percent of the participants did at least five 30-minute moderate exercise sessions or two 20-minute vigorous exercise sessions weekly–up from 31 percent at the study’s start. Meanwhile, only 25 percent of those in a control group of non-participants logged similar exercise sessions.

The participants maintained their increased levels of activity throughout the study, and few people dropped out.

“The biggest surprise was the steady and sustained progress. That can probably be explained by the social incentives and support from personal goals and achievements that had direct impact on team success,” said lead researcher Rod Dishman, a professor of exercise science in the UGA College of Education.

The findings are published in the February edition of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The program, dubbed “Move to Improve,” is based on the idea that setting realistic exercise goals–in this case, gradually increasing weekly exercise times by 10-minute chunks–can help people get active and stay that way.

Workers were given handbooks to help them set their personal exercise goals and overcome obstacles to staying active. For extra motivation, they were also split into small “teams” that each came up with a group exercise goal, providing vital peer encouragement.

“Personal and team goals work best when they are self-set, specific about how much activity and when, realistic but attainable and easily assessed, such as by weekly logs or pedometer steps,” said Dishman.

The findings suggest that similar workplace programs, focused on exercise goal-setting, could help more adults become physically active.

This is especially true, he said, since the 16 Home Depot sites used in the study were spread out across the U.S. and Canada and included men and women of various races and employment levels.

Despite evidence that physical inactivity is a major risk factor for coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity and some cancers, only a third of adults in the United States regularly participate in recommended levels of moderate or vigorous physical activity.

A sedentary lifestyle contributes directly to an estimated 200,000 deaths annually from coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and colon cancer. The combined effect of physical inactivity and poor diet accounts for more than 300,000 deaths each year and is a key contributor to the 50 percent increase in obesity among U.S. adults during the past decade, say health experts.

Workplaces offer unique opportunities to encourage adults to increase their physical activity. Most adults spend half of their waking hours at the workplace, providing opportunities for individualized and mass reach interventions to be implemented, UGA researchers say.

“Evidence suggests that workplace fitness programs can be cost-effective, possibly reducing employer costs for insurance premiums, disability benefits and medical expenses,” said Dishman.

The findings were a culmination of a three-year study funded by a $1.3 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Co-principal investigators in the study were UGA colleagues David DeJoy, professor, and Mark Wilson, associate professor, both in health promotion and behavior, and Bob Vandenberg, a professor of management.

A full text of the study, “Move to Improve: A Randomized Workplace Trial to Increase Physical Activity” is available to subscribers of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in its February 2009 issue at or by contacting the author.