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Recommendations and Rationale

Physical Activity: Behavior Counseling in Primary Care, July 2002

July 01, 2002

Recommendations made by the USPSTF are independent of the U.S. government. They should not be construed as an official position of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Recommendation Summary

Population Recommendation Grade
General adult population The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) concludes that the evidence is insufficient to recommend for or against behavioral counseling in primary care settings to promote physical activity. I

Additional Information

Full Recommendation:

Recommendations made by the USPSTF are independent of the U.S. government. They should not be construed as an official position of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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The USPSTF found insufficient evidence to determine whether counseling patients in primary care settings to promote physical activity leads to sustained increases in physical activity among adult patients. Controlled trials of physical activity counseling in adult primary care patients were of variable quality and had mixed results. There were no completed trials with children or adolescents that compared counseling with usual care practices. Data on the feasibility and potential harms of routine physical activity counseling in primary care settings are limited. As a result, the USPSTF could not determine the balance of potential benefits and harms of routine counseling to promote physical activity in adults. The USPSTF reviewed only the literature on the effectiveness of primary care counseling to promote physical activity. It did not review the evidence for the effectiveness of physical activity to reduce chronic disease morbidity and mortality, which has been well documented in other recent reviews, or review evidence of counseling in other settings. 

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  • Regular physical activity helps prevent cardiovascular disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and osteoporosis. It may also decrease all-cause morbidity and lengthen life-span.3
  • Benefits of physical activity are seen at even modest levels of activity, such as walking or bicycling 30 minutes per day on most days of the week. Benefits increase with increasing levels of activity.4
  • Whether routine counseling and followup by primary care physicians results in increased physical activity among their adult patients is unclear. Existing studies limit the conclusions that can be drawn about efficacy, effectiveness, and feasibility of primary care physical activity counseling. Most studies have tested brief, minimal, and low-intensity primary care interventions, such as 3 to 5 minute counseling sessions in the context of a routine clinical visit.
  • Multi-component interventions combining provider advice with behavioral interventions to facilitate and reinforce healthy levels of physical activity appear the most promising. Such interventions often include patient goal setting, written exercise prescriptions, individually tailored physical activity regimens, and mailed or telephone followup assistance provided by specially trained staff. Linking primary care patients to community-based physical activity and fitness programs may enhance the effectiveness of primary care clinician counseling.5
  • Potential harms of physical activity counseling have not been well defined or studied. They may include muscle and fall-related injuries or cardiovascular events.6 It is unclear whether more extensive patient screening, certain types of physical activity (e.g., moderate vs. vigorous exercise), more gradual increases in exercise, or more intensive counseling and followup monitoring will decrease the likelihood of injuries related to physical activity. Existing studies provide insufficient evidence regarding the potential harms of various activity protocols, such as moderate compared with vigorous exercise.
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Epidemiology and Clinical Consequences

Observational studies show that sedentary lifestyles (little or no leisure time, household, or occupational physical activity) are associated with increased risks for many chronic diseases and conditions, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and osteoporosis, and that increased levels of physical activity can reduce these risks.3 Despite the well-established benefits of exercise, 20 percent to 30 percent of adult Americans reported being sedentary in 1996.4 Only about 20 percent of adults achieved the recommended Healthy People 2010 level of moderate physical activity: 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most days of the week. Only 15 percent of adults achieved a vigorous level of physical activity for 20-minutes on three days of the week.2

Physical activity counseling practices of clinicians are highly variable. In a 1992 survey, 40 percent of internists reported assessing the activity status of patients, but only 25 percent of all the internists reported writing physical activity plans for patients.7,8 Similarly, 30 percent of nurse practitioners reportedly assessed the physical activity levels of patients, but only 14 percent of all the nurse practitioners provided written exercise plans.7,8 In a survey conducted in 1997, 42 percent of adult respondents reported receiving advice from their primary care providers to increase physical activity levels.2 However, the validity of such patient estimates are limited because the studies from which they were derived used varied and unclear definitions of "clinician counseling" or relied on patient recall of physical activity counseling previously received in the primary care setting.

Effectiveness of Counseling

The ideal evidence in support of counseling would directly link counseling to improved health outcomes in a controlled trial. In the absence of such evidence, the clinical logic behind counseling is based on a series of critical assumptions:

  • The clinician must be able to assess whether a patient is sedentary or physically active.
  • The clinician uses critical components of counseling that must be routinely replicable among patients.
  • Counseling must increase and maintain physical activity among sedentary patients.
  • The benefits of this increase in physical activity must be greater than any adverse effects of assessment, counseling, and increased activity.

Several theories are available on which to build counseling interventions; many of the studies examined by the USPSTF reported using more than one theory.9 Most behavioral counseling strategies developed and tested for routine use by primary care providers seek to condense a more intensive, clinic-based, cognitive-behavioral intervention into a brief intervention that fits readily into routine primary care. Physical activity counseling interventions often include a single 3-5 minute encounter with the clinician, followed for some by a followup session with either the clinician or another member of the health care team. Such counseling may occur alone or in the context of preventive clinical screenings and other lifestyle behavior change interventions. In most reports, the details of the counseling intervention were incomplete. It was thus difficult to determine whether a specific counseling component was significant or essential to changing behavior. There were too few studies available or of acceptable quality to determine whether a particular counseling technique outperformed others in producing behavior change.

The USPSTF found eight fair-to-good quality controlled trials (seven randomized,6,10-15 and one not randomized 16) and five poor quality trials that addressed whether counseling involving a primary care clinician improved physical activity. Most trials involved sedentary adults. Most studies directly tested whether physical activity counseling in the primary care setting was beneficial, although some10,12, 14 were designed to test whether educating clinicians to provide physical activity counseling was beneficial. Some interventions addressed multiple behaviors (smoking, alcohol use, and sedentary behaviors). Reports often provided limited detail regarding counseling interventions, and in several studies, delivery or receipt of the intervention was not confirmed. Some trials studied selected patient and/or provider populations. Most fair-to-good quality trials followed participants for at least 6 to 12 months and had followup rates of > 85 percent. Few studies included efforts to verify or validate self-reported behavioral outcomes.

The six trials of fair to good quality that compared physical activity counseling protocols to usual care provided mixed results.10-14, 16 Of the three trials reporting short-term (< 6 months) behavioral outcomes, one found significantly higher physical activity levels in the intervention group, and two found no differences between intervention and control groups in activity levels. Of the six trials that reported long-term (> 6 months) behavioral outcomes, two found significantly higher physical activity levels in the intervention group, and four found no differences between intervention and control groups in levels of physical activity.

Two fair to good quality randomized trials compared two or more different interventions aimed at increasing physical activity.6,15 In one, patients receiving advice and an exercise prescription were significantly more active at 6 weeks than those receiving only advice.15 The second trial compared increasingly intensive interventions delivered over a 2-year period.6 The intervention groups in this study included: physician advice alone totaling about 18 minutes; physician advice plus moderate intensity health educator behavioral counseling totaling about 3 hours; and physician advice plus more intensive health educator behavioral counseling totaling about 9 hours. The study did not find any significant overall group differences in self-reported physical activity or cardio-respiratory fitness at 6, 12, and 24 months. However, women in the most intensively counseled group reported significantly higher energy expenditure at 6 months than women in the moderate intensity counseling and advice-only groups, and women in the moderate and intensive counseling groups were documented to have significantly higher fitness levels at 24 months (measured by V02 max) than women in the advice-only group.

The USPSTF found no completed studies examining the effectiveness of physical activity counseling for children or adolescents that compared treatment to a usual care control. Several such studies are in progress.

Potential Adverse Effects of Counseling

Only one of the trials reviewed, monitored, and reported potential harms related to physical activity counseling.6 This trial, in which initially sedentary program participants between 35 and 75 years of age chose either moderate or vigorous activity, found an approximate 60 percent rate of musculoskeletal injuries and 30 percent rate of symptoms that may represent cardiovascular problems (chest pain, difficulty breathing, dizziness or loss of consciousness) over 2 years, with no significant differences between groups randomized to physician advice, physician advice plus behavioral counseling, or physician advice plus more intensive counseling. As this trial did not have a control group that received currently recommended care, it is difficult to ascertain whether any of the reported harms were directly due to physical activity counseling.

Widespread implementation of counseling could increase demand on clinical staff. However, available evidence suggests that clinicians may view counseling as a benefit to their practices. In a large randomized controlled trial, 63 percent of participating clinicians reported that counseling caused little to no increase in the length of the routine visit, 33 percent reported there was some increase, and only 4 percent complained of a substantial increase in the length of patient visits. Most clinicians (83 percent) felt that offering physical activity counseling was a benefit to the clinic.17

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Many benefits of physical activity have been identified in epidemiologic and laboratory studies. The challenge to clinicians and communities is to determine how to promote appropriate levels of regular physical activity in large segments of the population. The USPSTF and the Task Force on Community Preventive Services have addressed these issues. Whereas the USPSTF addressed the effectiveness of clinician counseling in primary care to increase physical activity, the Task Force on Community Preventive Services has addressed the effectiveness of community-based programs that target groups rather than individual patients.5

That Task Force found a number of interventions to be effective in promoting physical activity, including community wide campaigns, changing school-based physical education programs, improving access to places for physical activity, and individually-adapted behavior change programs. The latter programs generally recruited groups of volunteers at community sites, work sites, or schools; used group settings to set individual goals and teach skills for incorporating physical activity into daily routines; and provided reinforcement and problem-solving through phone contact or group meetings.

Although some intervention trials suggest that primary care counseling can promote increases in physical activity, the sum of studies conducted and reported to date are inadequate to determine the overall efficacy, effectiveness, and feasibility of physical activity counseling by clinicians in primary care settings. Reasons for mixed results among existing studies are not clear but involve variability in the rigor with which the interventions were delivered or evaluated, and may reflect a failure to distinguish patients who were ready to begin an exercise program from those who were not, or a lack of the most effective mix of intervention strategies.

Further studies are needed of the effects of clinician counseling on the level of physical activity in children, adolescents, and adults. The balance of benefits and harms, as well as approaches to preventing adverse effects, particularly among older adults and those less fit, needs further exploration. 

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The Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care concluded that the evidence for or against a recommendation to include physical activity counseling in the periodic health examination was lacking.18 

Many organizations and Federal agencies recommend that healthcare providers counsel individuals about physical activity; these recommendations are based on the health benefits of physical activity rather than on the effectiveness of counseling by clinicians for promoting changes in physical activity. Such organizations include the Department of Health and Human Services (Healthy People 2010),3 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Education in Maternal and Child Health (Bright Futures),19 American Academy of Family Physicians,[[>20]] American Academy of Pediatrics,21 The American Heart Association,22 and The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.23 

The Task Force on Community Preventive Services recommends individually-adapted health behavioral programs along with several other community-based interventions. The majority of the studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of these interventions were not included in the USPSTF review because they were conducted in groups outside the primary care setting or through other media. 

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Members of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force are Alfred O. Berg, M.D., M.P.H., Chair, USPSTF (Professor and Chair, Department of Family Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA); Janet D. Allan, Ph.D., R.N., C.S., F.A.A.N., Vice-chair, USPSTF (Dean and Professor, School of Nursing, University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio, TX); Paul Frame, M.D. (Tri-County Family Medicine, Cohocton, NY, and Clinical Professor of Family Medicine, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY); Charles J. Homer, M.D., M.P.H. (Executive Director, National Initiative for Children's Healthcare Quality, Boston, MA); Mark S. Johnson, M.D., M.P.H. (Chair, Department of Family Medicine, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-New Jersey Medical School, Newark, NJ); Jonathan D. Klein, M.D., M.P.H. (Associate Professor, Department of Pediatrics, University of Rochester School of Medicine, Rochester, NY); Tracy A. Lieu, M.D., M.P.H. (Associate Professor, Department of Ambulatory Care and Prevention, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA); Cynthia D. Mulrow, M.D., M.Sc. (Clinical Professor and Director, Department of Medicine, University of Texas Health Science Center, and Director, National Program Office for Robert Wood Johnson Generalist Physician Faculty Scholars Program, San Antonio, TX); C. Tracy Orleans, Ph.D. (Senior Scientist and Senior Program Officer, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Princeton, NJ); Jeffrey F. Peipert, M.D., M.P.H. (Director of Research, Women and Infants' Hospital, Providence, RI); Nola J. Pender, Ph.D., R.N., F.A.A.N. (Professor Emeritus, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI); Albert L. Siu, M.D., MSPH (Professor of Medicine, Chief of Division of General Internal Medicine, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, NY); Steven M. Teutsch, M.D., M.P.H. (Senior Director, Outcomes Research and Management, Merck & Company, Inc., West Point, PA); Carolyn Westhoff, M.D., M.Sc. (Professor, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Columbia University, New York, NY); and Steven H. Woolf, M.D., M.P.H. (Professor, Department of Family Practice and Department of Preventive and Community Medicine, Virginia Commonwealth University, Fairfax, VA).

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1. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Guide to Clinical Preventive Services, 2nd ed. Washington, DC: Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion; 1996.
2. Eden KB, Orleans TC, Mulrow CD, Pender NJ, Teutsch SM. Counseling by clinicians: does it improve physical activity: a summary of the evidence for the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Ann Intern Med 2002;137:208-15.
3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Healthy People 2010, conference edition. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2000. Available at: http://www.health.gov/healthypeople/Document/HTML/Volume2/22Physical.htm. Accessed May 30, 2002.
4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity and Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion; 1996. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/sgr/pdf/sgrfull.pdf. Accessed May 30, 2002.
5. Task Force on Community Preventive Services. Recommendations to increase physical activity in communities. Am J Prev Med 2002;22(4S):67-72. Available at: https://www.thecommunityguide.org. Accessed June 7, 2002.
6. The Writing Group for the Activity Counseling Trial Research Group. Effects of physical activity counseling in primary care: The activity counseling trial: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA 2001;286:677-87.
7. Francis KT. Status of the year 2000 health goals for physical activity and fitness. Phys Ther 1999;79(4):405-14.
8. National Center for Health Statistics. Healthy People 2000 Review 1997. Hyattsville, MD: Public Health Service; 1997. DHHS Publication No. (PHS) 98-1256.
9. Whitlock EP, Orleans CT, Pender N, Allan J. Evaluating primary care behavioral counseling interventions: an evidence-based approach. AJPM 2002;22(4):267-84.
10. Burton LC, Paglia MJ, German PS, Shapiro S, Damiano AM. The effect among older persons of a general preventive visit on three health behaviors: smoking, excessive alcohol drinking, and sedentary lifestyle. The Medicare Preventive Services Research Team. Prev Med 1995;24(5):492-97.
11. Goldstein MG, Pinto BM, Marcus BH, et al. Physician-based physical activity counseling for middle-aged and older adults: a randomized trial. Annals of Behavioral Medicine 1999;21(1):40-7.
12. Kerse NM, Flicker L, Jolley D, Arroll B, Young D. Improving the health behaviours of elderly people: randomised controlled trial of a general practice education programme. BMJ 1999;319(7211):683-7.
13. Norris SL, Grothaus MA, Buchner DM, Pratt M. Effectiveness of physician-based assessment and counseling for exercise in a staff model HMO. Prev Med 2000;30:513-23.
14. Steptoe A, Doherty S, Rink E, Kerry S, Kendrick T, Hilton S. Behavioural counseling in general practice for the promotion of healthy behaviour among adults at increased risk of coronary heart disease: randomised trial. BMJ 1999;319(7215):943-7; discussion 947-8.
15. Swinburn BA, Walter LG, Arroll B, Tilyard MW, Russell DG. The green prescription study: a randomized controlled trial of written exercise advice provided by general practitioners. Am J Public Health 1998;88(2):288-91.
16. Smith BJ, Bauman AE, Bull FC, Booth ML, Harris MF. Promoting physical activity in general practice: a controlled trial of written advice and information materials. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2000;34(4):262-7.
17. Albright CL, Cohen S, Gibbons L, et al. Incorporating physical activity: advice into primary care: physician-delivered advice within the activity counseling trial. Am J Prev Med 2000;18(3):225-34.
18. Beaulieu MD. Physical activity counseling. In: Canadian Task Force on the Periodic Health Examination. Canadian Guide to Clinical Preventive Health Care. Ottawa: Health Canada; 1994:560-569. Available at: http://www.ctfphc.org/Full_Text/Ch47full.htm. Accessed May 22, 2002.
19. Patrick K, Spear B, Holt K, Sofka D, eds. Bright Futures in Practice: Physical Activity. Arlington, VA: National Center for Education in Maternal and Child Health; 2001. Available at: http://www.aap.org/advocacy/physicalactivity.htm. Accessed May 15, 2002.
20. American Academy of Family Physicians. Summary of policy recommendations for periodic health examinations, revision 5.1. Available at: http://www.aafp.org/exam/PHERev5.1-1201.pdf. Accessed May 22, 2002.
21. American Academy Of Pediatrics: Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness and Committee on School Health. Policy statement: organized sports for children and preadolescents (RE0052). Pediatrics 2001;107(6):1459-62. Available at: http://www.aap.org/policy/re0052.html. Accessed June 4, 2002.
22. Fletcher GF. How to implement physical activity in primary and secondary prevention: a statement for healthcare professionals from the task force on risk reduction, American Heart Association. Circulation 1997;96:355-7.
23. American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Primary and Preventive Care: Periodic Assessments. ACOG Committee Opinion 246. Washington, DC: ACOG; 2000.

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