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Professor: to stay active, exercise with a purpose

January 14, 2002

If you made a resolution to join a gym or walk after work, the odds of following through are against you.

More than 30 years of data show that, on average, half the people who take up exercise quit after several months, says Bill Morgan, professor of kinesiology and director of UW–Madison’s Exercise Psychology Laboratory. After a year, only 25 percent have kept up the routine.

To improve a person’s chances of staying active, Morgan proposes a new paradigm of exercise that he says can significantly improve adherence; he calls it “Factor P” – “P” for purposeful.

Unlike traditional prescriptions for physical activity that recommend exercising for a given amount of time at a given intensity, Morgan recommends that people exercise for an immediate purpose – mowing the yard, cleaning the house, splitting fire wood, walking to work and even taking the dog for a walk.

“If you’re thinking about buying exercise equipment, buy a dog instead,” says Morgan (though he admits such a purchase should not be made casually). Common excuses like “It’s too cold outside” or “I’m busy” are irrelevant because the dog must be walked.

“When it’s minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit, my dog is just as eager to go for a walk,” he says. “I may not have time some mornings, but I have to make it.” Morgan, who says he sees the same people walking their dogs every morning, has not given in to weather or lack of time; he sticks to his physical activity because it has purpose.

Another plus to being active without equipment, Morgan points out, is energy conservation: as people burn energy – calories – working out at gyms, they also consume it by using the electric machines, lights, air conditioning and televisions.

“Contemporary models of exercise present all sorts of guidelines and recommendations,” Morgan says. “But that exercise should have purpose is missing.” Many models promote either structured activities – running on treadmills and lifting weights – or “lifestyle” activities – parking farther away, choosing stairs over escalators, and hand-washing dishes instead of running them through the machine.

While both types of activities may have long-term purpose (i.e., health benefits later in life), Morgan says they lack both efficiency and true purpose: “You don’t get anything for it today, tomorrow or even next week.” As a result, he says, people are less likely to keep up the routine.

“The way to enhance adherence,” he says, “is to adopt purposeful activities.”

In studying 10 individuals since 1990, Morgan has recorded the number of years people adhered to purposeful exercise. While some have continued to walk up to six miles per day with their dogs, others have cycled 15 miles to and from work. One individual, who still walks to the grocery store, is now 85 years old.

Purposeful exercise, however, does not necessarily involve wearing down the tread on your sneakers. Morgan says that people should set their own pace based on their own abilities. In a 1996 pilot study performed at the UW–Madison Arboretum, Morgan and his colleagues monitored the heart rate and perceived exertion of volunteer brush cutters. They found that the subjects selected their own, individual intensities and that their heart rates varied accordingly. Many exercise programs, Morgan says, advocate the opposite: They suggest people reach a certain heart rate and exercise accordingly.

“Recommendations of the intensity of physical activity are generally based on averages collected from a group,” Morgan says. “But, because everyone’s different, these recommendations may be inappropriate for some individuals.”

Due to these differences, Morgan suggests that each person exercise at a rate comfortable to him or her. “Rather than concentrate on the prescribed heart rate, exercise at the intensity perceived as acceptable to you,” he says. Choose something purposeful, he adds, and you’ll be more likely to keep your resolution.

Tags: research