Feb. 6, 1998 By Victoria White
GAINESVILLE, Fla.---Women who work out at home lose more weight and do a better job of keeping if off than those who are part of a group exercise program, say University of Florida researchers who conducted a study comparing the two approaches to weight loss.
The findings contradict popular assumptions that it's easier to stick to an exercise regimen if peer pressure is involved.
"For some people, the hurdle of getting to a group site is enough to stop them from going altogether or to limit their visits," said researcher Michael Perri, professor of clinical and health psychology at UF's College of Health Professions.
In a 15-month UF experiment, home exercisers kept up with their workouts, stuck through to the end of the study and monitored their diet at a higher rate than their counterparts in a group exercise program. The result: The home team averaged more than 25 pounds off their frame, compared with about 15 pounds for the others. All participants were helped along by periodic group meetings with a behavior-modification therapist.
The results were published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.
Obesity is associated with five of the 10 leading causes of death in the United States. Despite billions of dollars spent annually on diet pills, programs and special foods, more than a third of American adults are overweight, and the number is rising.
"Thirty pounds in 30-day programs are doomed to fail," Perri said. "But if people approach the problem with realistic expectations, even those who have been sedentary can adopt healthy exercise habits and maintain a modest weight loss.
"There are many ways to lose weight, but maintaining the loss is a significant problem," Perri said. "That is why we should look at weight control as an ongoing problem, much like diabetes or hypertension. You don't expect to cure a diabetic after a couple of months of treatment.
"For many who have successfully kept weight off, a key contributor is increased physical activity," Perri continued. "But most people who begin an exercise program give it up. We wanted to find ways that make it more likely that people will continue."
Through newspaper ads, researchers recruited 49 women between the ages of 40 and 60 who were overweight and had not engaged in regular aerobic exercise. On average, they weighed more than 190 pounds.
All participants were asked to limit their diet to 1,200 calories per day and to attend weekly two-hour group sessions for 26 weeks to learn weight management techniques, including self-monitoring and stimulus control. For the next 26 weeks, group sessions on maintaining changes in eating and exercise habits were held once every two weeks.
Half the participants were selected randomly for group exercise, with the rest assigned to individual, home-based workouts.
Exercise for both groups consisted of 30-minute walks five times weekly. The group exercisers were to walk together three days each week for the first 26 weeks and twice weekly after that, with the remainder of the exercise to be done on their own.
In the first six months, results were similar in amount of exercise, improvement in cardiovascular performance and amount of weight loss, with an average decline of 20.6 pounds for the group exercisers and 22.9 for those who worked out at home. After that, however, more of the group exercisers dropped out, and even those who continued with the workouts averaged fewer minutes of walking each week. The home exercisers, meanwhile, continued to lose.
At the end of 15 months, the home exercisers had maintained an average loss of more than 25.6 pounds, compared with 15.4 pounds for the others. Even when program dropouts are excluded from the calculations, the home exercisers did better, averaging a 26.2 pound weight loss, compared with 20.2 pounds for the group exercisers.
"According to surveys, most people would prefer to exercise at home," Perri said. "Another advantage you would expect is that when the program ends, it should be easier for the home exercisers to continue what they were doing.
"The home group also did a better job of monitoring their food intake," Perri said. "It appears that if you take good care of yourself by exercising, there is a good chance you'll follow dietary recommendations."
Perri suggested that when beginning any weight-loss program, it is important to consider whether long-term help is available.
At Weight Watchers International Inc., people who have met their goal through the program are encouraged to continue coming monthly for a weigh-in and meeting--at no charge if they are within two pounds of their target weight.
"We don't talk about our program as a diet that you go on and off," said Cara Bishop, manager of consumer affairs for Weight Watchers. "It's a way of life that we want you to maintain."
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