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Staying Active Is a Challenge for All Ages

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Surfing the Internet is often cited as a cause of sedentary living. But what if the Web could be transformed into a tool to help boost physical activity?

Brown University researchers recently examined the effectiveness of doing just that. They recruited 249 healthy but sedentary adults and started prompting them to increase their physical activity. Snail mail was used to send one group of participants activity tips tailored to their needs. Another group received customized tips by e-mail, while a third was supplied with a list of Internet resources about exercise but received no tailored tips.

Who did best? The good news: All the groups improved their activity and fitness levels. But those who received customized tips by e-mail averaged 120 minutes of activity six months into the year-long study, compared with 112 minutes for the traditional-mail group (not a statistically significant difference). Contrast those results with the 90 minutes of weekly activity reported by those in the third group.

At the one-year mark, all participants began to slip back into their old routines, as often happens with efforts designed to change unhealthy habits. But the groups that received customized tips by either e-mail or regular mail continued to maintain higher activity levels. They still averaged 90 minutes of activity per week, compared with 80 minutes for the other group.

The findings suggest that tailored tips can boost exercise and that delivering them by e-mail can be an effective tool in helping the inactive get moving, the researchers conclude in this week's issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

The results point to the benefit of using nontraditional channels of information to boost physical activity and suggest that e-mail tips can provide "equally effective results" as those delivered by snail mail, notes Bess Marcus, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and lead author of the study.

Using the Internet to deliver exercise tips and messages "can reduce potential barriers," says Marcus, who also directs the Center for Behavioral and Preventive Health at the Miriam Hospital in Providence.

With those results in mind, welcome to Week Two of the Lean Plate Club Family Challenge. On our Web site at http://www.leanplateclub.com, find a link to record how much physical activity you and your family get, whether you're a household of one or a multi-generational family of many. See how you compare with others who are taking the challenge. Also at the Web site, subscribe to the Lean Plate Club e-mail newsletter, a free weekly service that provides additional links to physical activity, healthful recipes and the latest nutrition and physical activity news.

The four-week family challenge is simple. Each week, you'll find a food goal and an activity goal. This challenge won't turn you into a marathon runner, but it will help shake off the last vestiges of winter and encourage you and your family to spring into summer. This week's goals are to get at least 10 minutes of activity with your family and to add more whole grains to your diet.

Ten minutes may not sound like a lot. But research shows that you need to start somewhere. If you and your family are already getting 10 minutes of activity, add 10 minutes more this week. No need to get fancy equipment. You can be active in your back yard.

No back yard? No problem. Try playing a rousing game of balloon ball indoors. To see how, check out a video of young members of the Dittamo, Mihalovich, Lowther, Bossard and Blevins families at http://www.leanplateclub.com.

Finding unusual ways to be active isn't a problem on Riviera Court, a suburban cul-de-sac in Dale City that teems with children and families. At the Mihalovich house, there's a small obstacle course in the front yard, a gym set out back and a trampoline down the hill that is a gathering spot for the neighborhood kids.

Out front, neighbor John Attaway, 9, and sister Hallye, 11, can be seen tossing a giant orange disk across the cul-de-sac. They also bike, fly kites and swim often with their single mom, retired Army Maj. Georgetta Bennett, 42. Family activities also include walks that enable the youngest member -- Amaree, 6, who has cerebral palsy -- to roll along in her wheelchair.

Activity is just one part of the equation for a healthier life. Healthful food is another. Most people fall short on eating whole grains, which have been linked to a lower risk of heart disease and stroke, more evenly regulated blood sugar levels and better overall health. For that reason, the federal 2005 Dietary Guidelines advise eating at least three servings daily of whole grains, including brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, whole-wheat bread, crackers and cereal.

Spotting true whole-grain products can be tough. "That's something that has always confused me," notes Amy Melnick-Scharf of Burke, whose family is taking the challenge for the second year. "I've always gotten wheat bread, but I've learned that sometimes it's just brown-colored white bread. It has to say whole grains."

To help consumers spot healthful products more easily, the Whole Grains Council, a consortium of food companies, scientists, chefs and the Oldways Preservation Trust, has begun issuing golden wheat stamps to products that contain at least half a serving of whole grains per portion.

Brenda Smith of the District notes that her family switched to whole grains as part of last year's challenge. "I thought we were going to get a lot more flak about that," she says. "But no, now we are completely whole-grain, from pasta to brown rice. We don't even think about it anymore."

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