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April 4, 2009

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.

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.

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.