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Stanford Report, October 1, 2003

Inactive seniors sought for study of telephone-based exercise counseling


Phone calls have proven to be an effective method of encouraging older adults to exercise more, and researchers at the medical center now want to examine the effectiveness of different methods of telephone-based support.

For the study, the Stanford Prevention Research Center is seeking older, inactive Bay Area residents who will receive telephone support over the course of a year from either health educators or "peer mentors" — trained volunteers over the age of 50 who already exercise regularly. The study is known as the TElephone health Advice and Mentoring, or TEAM, program.

Older adults are among the most inactive segments of society, yet they stand to reap sizable benefits from regular physical activity, said Abby King, PhD, professor of health research and policy and of medicine. Regular exercise can aid in preventing and controlling such diseases as hypertension, heart disease, type-2 diabetes, some forms of cancer and osteoporosis.

In addition, physical activity enhances mood and cognitive functions, and can enable older adults to maintain an independent lifestyle, King said.

Exercise classes appeal to only about a third of older adults, with the majority preferring to exercise closer to home through such activities as walking. However, informal types of exercise programs often don’t offer the ongoing encouragement that some older adults need. Previous studies at Stanford and elsewhere have found that telephone-based support is effective in filling that void.

"Older adults, like many others, are very busy and they usually prefer getting counseling and support in a convenient, flexible manner," King said. "Telephone-based counseling is a wonderful way to give advice and the ongoing support that many older adults need to stay active."

Those who are selected for the study will be randomly assigned to one of three programs receiving telephone-based support for a year: one in which exercise support is provided by health educators, a similar group in which the exercise support is provided by peer mentors and a program in which nutritional information will be provided by health educators.

In the first two months of the study, participants will be called approximately every two weeks. Beginning in the third month, the telephone support will be provided on a monthly basis although the frequency can be tailored to meet individual needs, King said.

She said the study will compare the changes in behaviors among the three programs as well as how those changes affect the participants’ health and well-being. In addition, the researchers will track how the experience affects those who volunteer to serve as peer mentors.

One advantage of using peer mentors is that they’re from the same age group and can empathize with those who find it difficult to exercise regularly, King said. Also, it may be a cost-effective way for community organizations such as senior-citizen centers to provide exercise support programs.

Study participants must be age 50 and older, free of any medical condition that would limit participation in moderate-intensity exercise, inactive for the past six months, fluent in English and have a telephone. Participants are asked to commit to the program for one year and must be willing to travel to the campus for periodic visits. To volunteer or for more information, contact Stanford Healthy Aging Studies at 723-9530, option 2. Information is also available at

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