People feel that they’ve upped their exercise regime only when they do more vigorous, not moderate, physical activity, according to a German study published recently in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
In fact, after adding moderate-level physical activity to their daily lives, people tend to think they haven’t made a positive behavior change at all, the study found.
This is a worrisome finding. If people see vigorous exercise as the only way to bring healthful physical activity into their lives, they may become too discouraged to do anything to increase their activity. Yet research has shown repeatedly that regular moderate-level physical activity has a beneficial effect on a long list of medical conditions, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, depression, dementia and several types of cancers. It also increases the chances of a longer life.
The current U.S. physical activity guidelines recommend that most adults engage in at least 150 to 300 minutes (2.5 to 5 hours) a week of moderate-intensity or 75 to 150 minutes (1.25 to 2.5 hours) of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity or an equivalent combination of both levels of activity. The guidelines also encourage people to spread the activity throughout the week.
Most American adults get far less exercise, however. Only about one in four men and one in five women in the United States meet the recommended levels of physical activity.
Experts often recommend that people take small “baby steps” to achieve a long-term sustainable change in their physical activity behavior. Yet, according to the findings of the current study, many people don’t perceive moderate physical activity to be an effective means for that change.
“It thus might fail to unfold sufficient motivational impact, despite its known positive effects on health,” the study’s authors conclude.
Two separate studies
The study is actually two studies, both of which used data from the Konstanz Life-Study, an ongoing German study investigating the influences of various health behaviors, including physical activity, on people’s health across time. The first study asked 605 men and women to fill out a questionnaire about their physical activity (vigorous activity, moderate activity and walking) within the previous seven days at two separate time points, six months apart. The second study gathered the same data from another group of 398 participants, but at two different time points.
At the second time point in each study, participants were asked to choose a statement that best reflected their physical activity behavior: “Yes, I became more physically active,” “No, but I tried to become more physically active,” “No, and I have not (even) tried,” and “No, because I was already physically active on a regular basis before.” The participants’ fitness was also objectively assessed at both time points with a 60-minute bicycle test.
The findings showed that people who said they had become more active (“changers”) did indeed increase their overall physical activity — by an average of 52 to 82 minutes per week. But that increase was in vigorous activity. They reported no significant change in moderate-level activity.
“This pattern of results suggests that an increase in intensive physical activity is the critical variable for perceiving a change in one’s physical activity,” the study’s authors write.
Limitations and implications
The study involved German adults, so the findings may not be applicable to other populations, including people living in the U.S. Also, the study focused on adults aged 18 to 65. Older adults may have a different perception of behavioral change. In addition, physical activity levels were assessed by the participants’ own reports. Those levels might be different if they had been objectively measured, such as with portable activity monitors.
Still, the current study’s findings are rigorous enough to raise some important questions for how best to encourage people to make healthful changes in their lives, particularly in regard to exercise. The results may also help to explain why so many people fail to stick with exercise programs over the long term.
“The fact that people ignore the potential beneficial effects of moderate physical activity may be based on the difficulties associated with taking notice of low volume physical activity,” the study’s authors point out.
“The present findings thus speak for a change in current health recommendations,” they add. “Not only vigorous but also moderate physical activity should [be] highlighted, given that extensive empirical research has shown that moderate physical activity does have enormous positive health consequences as well.”
So, get out there and move more. When it comes to physical activity, even “baby steps” can make a meaningful difference for your health.
FMI: The study can be read in full on the Frontiers in Psychology website. For information on how to get more physical activity into your life, go to the Health and Human Services’ “Move Your Way” website.