"Large surveys have people report what they do, and when you do that, about 50 to 60 percent of the population report that they get at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day. But put objective devices on them, and it's less than 10 percent who are actually doing regular exercise," he said. "There's a significant discrepancy between what people report and what they are doing."
The study measured physical activity performed by 254 female participants, 124 of whom were considered obese. The women each wore the accelerometers for a week at the start of the study and then for a week at the end. On average, physical activity dropped by 8 percent over the course of 20 months for the obese participants. Tucker said it equates to cutting exercise time down by 28 minutes a week.
Non-obese participants showed essentially no change over the course of the study, maintaining similar levels of physical activity from the beginning to the end.
While planned and orchestrated physical activity is the best way to work it into a daily schedule, Tucker said brisk walking for a minimum of 30 minutes a day for five days a week "works quite nicely" for most people. Putting exercise off until the end of the day, he said, makes it tougher to accomplish.
"It takes a unique individual to get 150 minutes a week," Tucker said. "It's as important as most other things in our lives. You just have to fit it in. You can't say, 'I'll do it if I have time,' because it just won't happen."
Tucker said he jogs on his treadmill early every morning in order to get it out of the way. The current environment, with its stimulating foods, ready access and easy preparation, he said, "is making it more difficult for people to be active and to be lean."
Avoiding the cycle of increased weight gain and decreased ability to change it, he said, begins with an active childhood or a lifestyle that incorporates daily movement.
"When people aren't used to moving and never learned to enjoy movement or physical activity, it can be harder to pick up later in life," Tucker said, adding that physical activity tends to decrease over time, as age increases.
Once a person gets into his or her 20s, he said, there is a significant drop-off in time spent exercising.
"We just find other things to do with our time," Tucker said, adding that weight gain and the increasing difficulty to move are also factors "working against us."
Sticking with a regular exercise program, he said, can yield the best results, but moderate exercise "makes a huge difference in health."
Jared Tucker, a graduate student at the time, was the lead author of the study, and exercise science professors James LeCheminant and Bruce Bailey also contributed. Their work will be published in the March issue of Obesity.
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