Experts are looking at nontraditional programs to convince people that moderate physical activity can be fit into even the busiest schedule.

Initially, even just thinking about exercise is a good sign, says Patricia Dubbert, chief psychologist at the Jackson VA Medical Center in Mississippi and a longtime exercise adherence researcher.

"You're getting ready,'' says Dubbert, who with colleagues contends that becoming an exerciser is not an overnight process, but involves many stages, including precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance.

Anything that inspires people to exercise is okay with James Sallis, a San Diego State University professor of psychology who also researches exercise adherence. But anyone under the influence of, say, the magnificent display of athletics during the Olympic Games should inject some realism into the fantasy. "Role models are most effective when they are most similar to you,'' Sallis says.

Learning to make exercise a habit is just as difficult as quitting smoking, says Andrea Dunn, a researcher at the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas. In a study of 235 men and women ages 35 to 65, she compared two types of two-year interventions to persuade people to become more active.

During the first six months, one group was asked to work out at a gym at least three times a week for 20 or 30 minutes, working up to a traditional five-day-a-week workout goal. The nontraditional group attended weekly discussion sessions and learned how to overcome obstacles to exercise. This group could work out at a gym or on their own.

Preliminary results from the study suggest that both groups improved their fitness, although the gym-based group had better results. Members of both groups had equal improvements in blood pressure and total cholesterol reduction, Dunn says, proving the nontraditional approach shows promise.

An organized program is often important for novices. "When we structure exercise classes as part of a treatment program for (overweight) women, it seems to work well when they come three times a week as part of a study,'' says Ross Andersen, assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, citing results of his study of 128 women, published in the Journal of Clinical and Consulting Psychology.

But as soon as the participants are "cut loose'' from the schedule, Andersen says, their exercise habits disintegrate.

Motivation to exercise is very individual, Sallis says. "For some people, it's having a group or a buddy. For some, it's the pleasure of being alone with their thoughts for a while.''

Once people become regular exercisers, they share certain characteristics, such as:

  • Always having a Plan B—If they intended to go for a walk and it's raining, they head for their exercise bike.
  • Seeing exercise as a welcome break, not an imposition—Last year, Dubbert was in the midst of writing a research grant proposal while keeping up her usual workload. "I'd walk to get my thoughts together. Most of my best ideas have come when I am exercising," she says.
  • Rewarding themselves for sticking with it
  • Expecting obstacles—"The flu, blisters…something is going to set you back,'' Dubbert says. "You have to view that as a bump in the road, not an impassable barrier.'' In a study of 105 regular exercisers who kept workout diaries for two months, Dubbert and her co-researcher, Barbara Stetson of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, found subjects fell one session short of their goals each week, on average.
  • Not overexerting—Serious injury is the main reason adult exercisers drop out, Sallis says. "A long-term exerciser who hasn't dropped out probably has a level of activity that doesn't stimulate serious injuries,'' he speculates. By keeping his jogging to a moderate pace, three times a week, Sallis hasn't had an injury in 12 years.
  • Keeping themselves entertained—In a study published in Physical Therapy, men who listened to music while exercising on stationary bikes pedaled 30% longer than they did while pedaling in silence; women averaged 25% longer workouts with music.
  • Exercising in the morning—The later it gets, the more excuses most people find not to work out.
  • Learning how to win those "internal dialogues''—"The exercise part of you has to win these dialogues,'' Sallis tells his research subjects. It's not that the inner athlete must have the best argument, Sallis says. Just the last word.