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A fresh outlook on exercise as metro Atlanta creates more walkable neighborhoods

By David Pendered

Amid all the discussion of walkable neighborhoods and how they boost community health, almost overlooked is the cutting-edge research produced by the YMCA of Metro Atlanta that is helping people improve their physical and emotional health.

Midtown Alliance

Programs created by the YMCA of Metro Atlanta can help folks learn to exercise in the region’s walkable neighborhoods, including the sidewalks of Midtown. Credit: Midtown Alliance

The YMCA leads all institutions for the number of wellness programs it’s created that are cited by the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute.
The YMCA has five such programs.

The various programs created in Atlanta have been adopted for use in 35 YMCA cities across the United States. They’ve been adopted by practitioners in Canada and the United Kingdom.

“People don’t realize this is coming out of Atlanta,” said James Annesi, who since 2000 has led the association’s wellness research and evaluation program. “We don’t’ realize the YMCA can produce these kinds of things.”

Annesi was the first full-time behavioral researcher to be hired by a YMCA. He’s also a professor at Kennesaw State University’s Wellstar College of Health and Human Services. Previously, he served on the faculty at Rutgers University and held clinical and research positions at the Veterans Affairs Health Care System, Trinitas Medical Center, and Enhanced Performance Technologies.

Annesi said most folks don’t need to be lectured about the value of exercise. He said 95 percent of U.S. residents know they should exercise, but only 3.5 percent hit the minimum requirement.

bobo doll

A 1961 experiment by Arthur Bandura used an inflatable plastic Bobo doll to establish the theory that children learn violent behavior by watching exhibits of violent behavior. Credit: sites.tufts.edu

So, his research builds off the theories of Arthur Bandura, the Stanford University behavioral scientist who established the premise that most folks learn by watching the behavior of others. As in, children learn aggressive behavior by watching exhibits of aggressive behavior, a premise he established with his experiments in 1961 with the inflatable plastic Bobo doll. This premise is at the root of efforts to curb violent content marketed to youngsters.

Annesi’s research encourages folks to start an exercise routine that is reasonable for that person. If a person is sedentary, starting with the goal of walking 150 minutes a week isn’t realistic. Or, if the person is a single, working parent, time restraints are a very real challenge. But they don’t have to be deal breakers, according to Annesi.

“Even minor amounts of physical exercise, for those who are generally sedentary, is a start,” Annesi said. “If you do it two to three times a week, you’ll get changes in mood that are so pronounced that nothing adds to it. We’ve reached a ceiling.”

The goal is to establish exercise as a habit through a regimen of self-discipline. Once the exercise habit has been established, the self-discipline that’s been achieved can be expanded to increase the amount of exercise, and to begin making changes to diet – such replacing processed snacks with fruit and eating more vegetables and fewer carbohydrates.

“We focus on short-term goals, which could be, ‘Can you do 20 minutes of exercise a week?’,” Annesi said. “Then we say, ‘Can we get you to 60 minutes a week?’ ‘How has our bounce-back approach worked for you?’ ‘Have you been undermined at home?’ ‘Can we get you into a group?’”

This is how a statement about Annesi’s 2017 book, Empowering Weight Loss through the Psychosocial Benefits of Exercise, describes the approach:

James Annesi

James Annesi

  • “Self-management/self-regulatory skills can be purposefully developed to maximize adherence to exercise, and then (after a regular and manageable exercise routine is established) be intentionally leveraged to control eating, lose weight, and (what has been rarely accomplished) keep it off. No extreme diets; no up and down results.”

The four programs devised by Annesi are included with a YMCA membership or participation in a YMCA afterschool or early learning programs. The four programs are divided by age groups:

  • The Coach Approach – for sedentary adults and an adaption for children with obesity;
  • Start for Life – for children aged 3 years to 5 years;
  • Youth Fit For Life – for children aged five years to 12 years;
  • Weight Loss for Life – for adults with a body mass index of 30 or more.

These approaches get to the heart of the matter, which is physical exercise. And, according to Annesi, exercise programs don’t have to start with a heart-rate monitor and a lofty, perhaps unreachable, goal.


David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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