Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have found a new way to encourage sedentary adults to exercise - Computer-generated phone calls.
According to the researchers, the new system could be an effective, low-cost way to push sedentary adults towards an exercise routine.
During the study, researchers found that regular telephone calls delivered from either live health educators or by an automated computer system successfully prodded inactive adults into a regular 150-minute per week exercise program. Also, they found that computer calls were almost as effective as the calls by a real person.
"This is the first study to directly compare the efficacy of a physical activity program delivered by a computer versus humans and found them to work similarly well. Theoretically, it could be delivered to anybody around the country or around the world, and could save time and money," said lead author Abby King, PhD, professor of health research and policy and a senior investigator at the Stanford Prevention Research Center.
King said that most of the 218 San Francisco Bay Area adults over the age of 55 who participated in the study, referred to as the Community Health Advice by Telephone or CHAT, insisted at the start that they would need a live human voice to be successful. "Everybody got a chance to listen to the computer program so they knew what it sounded like before we started. About 80 to 85 percent told us that they preferred or needed a human," King said.
However, they were proved wrong. In fact, researchers found that participants who lacked confidence initially in their ability to increase their physical activity levels and who also felt less comfortable interacting with people generally did better overall when they didn't have to talk to a human. "We were thrilled that at six months the results were identical between the two groups. By 12 months, there was still virtually no difference. The bottom line is that people tend to prefer what they know. That doesn't necessarily mean that's the best program for them," King said.
The purpose was to get participants out walking at a brisk pace for 30 minutes most days of the week, or some other form of medium-intensity physical activity, for about 150 minutes a week, as recommended by the U.S. Surgeon General. They were divided into three groups: a control group that didn't get calls, a group called by trained health educators and a group called by a computer delivering an interactive, individualized program similar to that being delivered by the health educators. Exercise levels were measured with the use of an accelerometer, which provides an estimate of physical activity amount as well as intensity.
After a year, participants who received computer calls averaged 157 minutes per week of exercise, compared with 178 minutes for the group that received human voice calls and 118 minutes for the control group, which was not called. King said that both of the 'called' groups averaged above the 150-minute a week goal, and that's the most important thing from a public health point of view.
The automated system was set up in such a way so that participants could converse by using the telephone keypad.
King said that one advantage of the computer system was the convenience of being able to make additional phone calls after hours when the human health counsellor would be off duty.
"I think a lot of people were pleasantly surprised that the computer voice was helpful. And it was just as helpful for women as men," King said.
The study is published in the current issue of the journal Health Psychology.