Web Sites Act As Exercise Coaches

Monday, August 7th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — James F. Sallis concedes there's a nice paradox in trying to get people up and active by using the Internet, which requires them to sit and look.

``The reason people are sedentary in the first place is, we have so much technology,'' said Sallis of San Diego State University.

So Sallis, other researchers, and some Web entrepreneurs are seeing if the Internet's ability to deliver individually tailored advice and encouragement can provide the coaching needed to turn people on to physical activity.

``You are reaching them where they are,'' Sallis said. ``You can use this technology, which is devoted to keeping people sedentary, to get them off their chairs.''

In these interactive systems, which also can include computerized mailings and home computer programs, users enter in information about themselves, such as their age and sex, and their preferences in activities — even whether they don't like doing activities. The system's host computer, or the program on the home computer, responds with advice appropriate to the individual. Some sites, such as non-commercials, would be free to the user. Commercial sites would make their money by selling banner advertisements and by charging users a fee for their advice.

The American Heart Association is testing a Net-based tailoring system on heart disease control and prevention by exercise and other means. The AHA hopes to take it public late this year or early next year, said Terry L. Bazzarre, staff scientist at the AHA's national center in Dallas.

For instance, a man who tells the AHA that he would take drugs for his heart but won't exercise might be encouraged to keep taking medication — and be gently prodded to think about exercise, Bazzarre said. A person who is thinking of trying exercise might be encouraged to buy a good pair of shoes and to start walking. And a person who has decided to start walking might be given advice on setting goals, a place to log the walking being done — and praise or a little nagging, depending on the amount of walking reported.

Shaping attitudes this way leads people gently toward exercise, said Bess H. Marcus of Brown University in Providence, R.I. ``Motivation level is critical,'' she said. ``You have to meet the person where they are and take a few small steps forward.''

This interactive approach could make the Internet and the computer the personal trainer to the masses, said Marcus who, like Sallis, has an article on activity and interactivity in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

``It is critical that these interventions be disseminable to the 75 percent of the population who are sedentary or insufficiently active,'' Marcus' article said. ``To achieve this goal, physical-activity intervention must move beyond face-to-face ... approaches.''

Some Web sites already are trying this, and others are being designed. ``There's huge growth,'' said Gregory Florez, president and CEO of First Fitness Inc. ``It really started in the last 12 to 18 months, so right now, it's exploding.''

The Salt Lake City company designed an interactive site, FitAdvisor.com, for purchasers of home exercise equipment. The purchaser of, say, a treadmill, gets an account number along with the equipment. When the user accesses the Web site, he or she enters personal health and demographic data. The site elicits exercise goals, and walks the user through an activity checklist including a calendar and a log to be filled in, to show what is being accomplished day by day.

Based on what the users log, the program will send messages that congratulate them on their progress or exhort them, ``c'mon, let's get going,'' said Richard Cotton, an exercise physiologist who is developing the interactive site at First Fitness.

Feedback to the user is vital to keeping the exerciser on track and the treadmill from gathering dust, as so much home equipment does, Florez said. ``It's about adherence; it really is,'' he said.

No one can be sure yet whether the new approach will work. It's still being tested. But scientists and entrepreneurs alike say the interactive system has the advantage of building a database of what works and what doesn't. Programmers can change the system, dropping things that users don't like and expanding the ones they do.

In addition, the system may yield masses of data on the effects of long-term exercise, as users stick with the Internet programs, the experts say. Bazzarre likened the potential to that shown in the landmark Framingham Heart Study. Since 1948, thousands of residents of Framingham, Mass., have been followed, as researchers checked how their lifestyle habits, including smoking, diet and exercise, influenced their heart disease risk.

With the World Wide Web, the number of participants who could be followed could reach millions.

``We have the potential for what I call a Framingham in the Sky,'' Bazzarre said.


On the Net: First Fitness: http://www.firstfitness.com

FitAdvisor: http://www.fitadvisor.com

American Heart Association: http://www.americanheart.org

Stayhealthy wellness portal: http://www.stayhealthy.com

Asimba training site: http://www.asimba.com/asm/Home

Efit health and wellness site: http://www.efit.com