The Washington Post poll of local sports activity was conducted last month, with 1,563 people 18 years old and older interviewed by telephone.

The first question people were asked was whether or not they ever engage in exercise, sports or outdoors activity to keep fit or for the pleasure of it. Most of the findings are based on interviews with the 69 percent that said "yes" in answer to that question.

Interviewing for The Post was conducted by the firm of Smith, Berlin and Associates. A random sample of residents of the District of Columbia, Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George's counties were selected for interviews by a process of random digit dialing, which allows holders of unlisted as well as listed telephone numbers to be included in the sample .

If fitness is only a tad it shows no signs of fading away in Washington.

Last month The Washington Post surveyed 1,563 adults in the capital area to find out what they are doing in the way of sports, recreation and exercise. The overriding answer; a lot of different things, and usually something.

Sixty-nine percent of people polled in a random sampling by telephone said they engage in sports, exercise or outdoor activities in their leisure time. That's almost seven out of every 10 adults.

And it's not just games people are playing. If anything, the trend in the capital area is away from games that wind up with winners and losers.

Respondents were asked what the main sports activities they pursued were. Twenty percent said jogging and running; 16 percent said walking, and 16 percent said swimming. They were the three highest "main sport" categories, with tennis next to 15 percent.

The survey asked whether respondents favored competitive or noncompetitive sports. Almost half said they enjoyed games played to win, while 39 percent said they favored noncompetitive activities.

But when it came down to specifics -- what sports and activities from a list of 15 the respondents actually engaged in -- the balance was decisively on the side of the ones that usually involve no winners or losers.

More than half said they went swimming, either frequently or sometimes; 40 percent jogged or ran; one third went hiking and camping and 41 percent were bicyclists.

By contrast fewer than a third said they frequently or sometimes played tennis, which long has been an extremely popular pastime in Washington; fewer than one in 10 played soccer; 12 percent pursued racquetball and less than a quarter of the respondents were basketball players.

This is a development that comes as no great surprise to veteran watchers of trends in sports.

Said Verle Nicholson, information director of the President's Council on Physical Fitness, "You're dealing with adults here, and it's hard to stay involved in competitive team sports after leaving school or the military.

"The dual sports like tennis are still fairly high, but we've always seen a fairly small number of adults involved in team competitive sports."

What strikes Nicholson and other observers as significant is the large number of women and people in their middle years who are becoming actively involved in sports and fitness. They say it's these newcomers that are opening up the noncompetitive sports circle.

"We know for a fact that the number of adults who participate in fitness sports has doubled over the last 15 years," said Nicholson's colleague at the council, Glenn Swengros.

Nicholson calls it a sports boom, and an unprecedented one at that.

"This is the first time that we've ever seen a peacetime fitness movement that's involved women, middleaged people and even the elderly," he said.

He said there have been two other sports booms in America, both associated with military buildups to deal with global emergencies.

"In 1917 men were called up to serve in World War I and a lot of them failed their physicals. There was a great hue and cry about the state of our men. A lot of our physical fitness programs started then, and they were aimed at young men and boys.

"The same thing happened in the early 1940s. For the same reasons, the programs were aimed at the same people.

"The fact that we now have people from the other sex and from outside traditional age groups heavily involved accounts to a degree for the increasing interest in noncompetitive sports," Nicholson said.

Just how deeply are women and older people involved? Sixty-three percent of women questioned in the survey said they engaged in sports or exercise, and a stunning 49 percent of people aged 50 and older answered yes.

Dr. Thomas Tutko, a sports psychologist at San Jose State University, thinks it's simply a sign of the times. "The in thing today is to be involved in jogging or some similar fitness sport" he said. "It doesn't mean competitive sports are decreasing, just that a whole other side of sports is opening up.

"It's much more socially acceptable. It's okay to run. It's not weird. We don't even notice joggers anymore. Fifteen years ago if you saw one, you wouldn't believe it."

But involvement in sports and recreation has become more than simply acceptable. In some cases it's practically a way of life.

Exercise is a proven antidote to stress and anxiety, and in such high-pressure urban environments as Washington, it doesn't take long for adults to recognize the benefits.

"The popular conjecture," said Coralee Van Egmond of the Washington-based National Jogging Association, "is that so many people here are professionally oriented and stuck in desk jobs.

"Getting up on their feet and moving around is a high-priority, very pleasing thing."

Adds Swengros of the President's Council, a marathoner himself, "The lasting motivation is the addiction to feeling good and the reduction in stress.

"We call it the fight or flight syndrome. Cavemen had to hunt their food and defend themselves. For protection they had adrenal glands, which activated to give them extra energy in times of stress, when they had to fight or flee.

"We still have adrenal glands and they still respond to stressful situations. The problem is that now there's no way to release this energy. You can't fight your boss when he changes your vacation dates, or run away from work.

"The quick and efficient way to release this chronic tension is exercise -- especially rhythmic exercise like bicycling, swimming, jogging and fast walking."

For a large number of Washingtonians, evidently, these "rhythmic" sports provide more than a way to feel good. They are a way to avoid feeling bad.

Dr. Robert Brown, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia who specializes in depression, said, "One thing that we've discovered is that exercise helps to release strong emotions.

"My position has been to look at exercise as it relates to mental health. I've found that if I can get depressed people to exercise I don't need to use medication. I personally have never seen a psychiatrically ill person who was physically fit. That's documented through records on 8,000 people."

Brown's favorite initial treatment for depressed patients is to get them walking -- fast walking, starting with a mile in 15 minutes and working up to a regular regimen of three miles in 45 minutes, three to five times a week.

"That's as good for you as running 20 miles a day, from a cardiovascular standpoint," said Brown. "Once the program is going, I find I rarely have to resort to medication for depressed patients."

For whatever reasons, Washingtonians are getting the message.

According to the poll, respondents who engaged in sports or exercise averaged about 6 1/2 hours a week at it. That compares with a nationwide average of only five hours a week of vigorous activity, according to a survey cited by the President's Council on Physical Fitness.

Some other interesting findings:

Of 15 categories specifically asked about in the poll, in only one -- running and jogging -- did respondents say they were doing more now than two years ago.

Almost a third of joggers and runners said they had increased their activity in the last two years, while only 22 percent said they were doing less.

In all the other activities including swimming, tennis, bowling, golf, soccer, boating, hiking and camping, fishing and a half-dozen other categories, people said they were doing less than they had in years past.

Specialists said this is not uncommon in polls among adults, who have a natural tendency to decrease activity with advancing years.

While such sports as canoeing, rock-climbing, winter camping and hang-gliding are capturing media attention, most Washingtonians say they stay away from "adventurous sports." Fifty-two percent said they did not get involved in adventure spots; only 37 percent said they did.

A majority of respondents -- 53 percent -- said they feel they get enough exercise, while 46 percent thought they needed more.

Washingtonians interests are not too different from the rest of the nation's. A 1979 Nielsen national survey showed many of the same trends, listing (in order) swimming, bicycling, camping, fishing, bowling, boating, jogging and running, tennis, pool-billiards and softball as the 10 most popular American participation sports.

Americans in general, and Washingtonians in particular, evidently are getting off their duffs and away from their television sets.

Ironically, there are those who think TV deserves a lot of the credit.

"It has glorified sports," said Tutko, the San Jose State psychologist. "Sports on the air has become one of our most popular entertainments and a major spinoff has been increasing interest in participation sports.

"It's taking over advertising. Everyone in the ads in jogging or swimming or camping or playing tennis. People see that, get involved and then they start finding out the peripheral benefits."

And then they are hooked.

One thing is certain. If they're Washingtonians, they won't be alone.