Telephone-based coaching as an impetus for more exercise

Physical activity is a good way to minimize various health risks – regardless of gender, age and fitness level. This might seem common knowledge, and yet many people do not find the time and motivation to engage in regular physical activity.

For this reason, there are numerous programs in Switzerland designed to help people start exercising. What has rarely been studied, however, is which interventions work in everyday life and actually motivate very busy individuals to become more physically active in the long term.

Researchers from the University of Basel have now explored this question during a six-month study, in which they split 288 inactive adults into three different groups. One group received only a single written recommendation, while the other two groups participated in biweekly telephone coaching sessions. One of the phone groups received two text messages each week in addition to the calls.

Staying active in the long term

At the end of the intervention, the phone-based group subjects showed a weekly increase in physical activity of 250 minutes. This group managed to maintain this increase in activity during the follow-up period of six months, during which they were still exercising 200 minutes more than before starting with the program. Based on the information recorded by the participants and data from sensors recording their daily activity, the one-time written recommendation also increased the activity of the subjects, but not as effectively and clearly as the phone-coached group.

Individual changes in behavior

“To achieve long term effects, it appears that personalized coaching is very important,” says study author Xenia Fischer from the Department of Sport, Exercise and Health at the University of Basel. For this reason, a profile was created for all subjects before beginning with the study, factoring in parameters like age, exercise habits and their individual experiences and preferences. This allowed the coaches to utilize the most promising techniques for changing the behavior of each subject, including goal setting, action planning, feedback and knowledge transfer.

“From the point of view of the subjects, specific planning of activities as well as strategies for overcoming barriers were particularly helpful. They also appreciated having a personal coach to guide them towards reaching their own goals,” explains the sports scientist. Since no face-to-face meetings took place in the case of this remote coaching, it was also possible to help people who got little exercise due to time constraints.

Health insurers showing an interest

In the face of rising costs generated by non-communicable diseases, there is a need for personalized and affordable approaches that motivate people to adopt a healthy lifestyle. “Effective coaching is a good way to help counter the negative health effects of lack of exercise,” says exercise and sport scientist Prof. Dr. Lukas Zahner, who led the study.

Several projects that use this coaching approach are currently in progress. In collaboration with the University of Basel researchers, two Swiss health insurers are testing phone-based diets and exercise coaching. The Canton of Basel-Stadt is also working on a similar health-coaching program for interested staff members.

contact for scientific information:
Prof. Dr. Lukas Zahner, University of Basel, Department of Sport, Exercise and Health, phone: +41 61 207 47 37, email:

original publication:
Xenia Fischer, Lars Donath, Kimberly Zwygart, Markus Gerber, Oliver Faude and Lukas Zahner
Coaching and Prompting for Remote Physical Activity Promotion: Study Protocol of a Three-Arm Randomized Controlled Trial (Movingcall)
International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (2019), doi: 10.3390/ijerph16030331

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