Psychologists in Virginia Tech's College of Science are looking for participants in a free Internet program that helps people make permanent lifestyle changes to improve their health.

The program, called Guide-to-Health, is part of a research study about the effectiveness of Internet programs and is available for people meeting qualifications.

According to Richard Winett, director of the university’s Center for Research in Health Behavior and director of the project: “Most Americans know they should eat better and be more physically active. What most don’t know is that they don’t have to make drastic life changes to do it. Making just a few key changes can have big health benefits.”

Guide-to-Health provides the skills, support, and information people need to increase physical activity, eat more nutritiously, and prevent weight gain. The program is based on National Institutes of Health-supported research conducted by Winett and his team that involved women and men from diverse backgrounds.

Winett said many otherwise healthy adults gain about two pounds each year, so people who are normal weight at age 30 can become overweight or even obese by the time they are 50. For an ever-growing number of mid-life adults, the signs of inactivity and gradual weight gain show up as higher blood pressure, higher “bad” cholesterol, more body fat, and a condition known as pre-diabetes.

“Left alone, these symptoms can become chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancers, and diabetes, can shorten your life, and can make the years you have to live less enjoyable,” he said.

The health focus favored by many scientists now is what is called “weight stabilization,” which includes making selective changes in eating and adding more physical activity. But, while the needed changes are small, they are often difficult to make and stick with.

“To make these critical changes in nutrition and physical activity, most people need to develop skills and have support over a long period of time,” Winett said. “In fact, probably the best way to make these changes is to have your own personal program and coach. Fortunately, there are now ways to provide a personal program to many people through technology and the Internet.”

The goal of the “Guide-to-Health” program is the help people make healthy changes a permanent lifestyle. The program is designed to see how well an interactive Internet program helps people reach this goal and improve their health.

“There are quite a number of Internet health programs available but few have all the features of the program we have developed, and few have been really tested to see how well they work over the long-term,” Winett said.

Guide-to-Health is a free program. However, participants must be 18 to 63 years of age, not physically active, with a body mass index between 23 and 39, and have access to the Internet. As a research project, there is a series of steps involving assessments for qualifying, consent procedures, and, completing initial assessments for health behaviors, before enrolling in the program. Participants who complete all enrollment steps will receive a free pedometer and scale.

Individuals will then access the Guide-to-Health program online every week for 18 months. Weekly online coaching will take about 10 to 20 minutes. Two additional assessments will be given during the project.