The 276 participants in this study were a random sub-sample of 1386 apparently healthy overweight (BMI ≥ 25 kg/m2) subjects participating in a large-scale lifestyle intervention study, called ALIFE@Work . In this randomized controlled trial (RCT) the effectiveness of a distance-counseling lifestyle intervention program, delivered by either phone or Internet/e-mail, was investigated in overweight employees.
Participants were employees from seven different companies (two IT-companies, two hospitals, an insurance company, the head office of a bank and a police force) located in The Netherlands. Inclusion criteria were: 1) ≥ 18 yrs old, 2) BMI ≥ 25 kg/m2, 3) access to Internet (at home or at work) and knowledge how to use it, 4) paid employment for at least 8 hours a week; 5) being able to read and write Dutch. Subjects who were pregnant, or were diagnosed or treated for disorders that made physical activity difficult were excluded.
The Medical Ethics Committee of the VU University medical center reviewed and approved the study design, procedure and informed consent procedure (December 11, 2003). All participants provided written informed consent. All subjects participated voluntarily and were free to cancel their participation at any time throughout the course of the study.
Design and study procedures
A detailed description of the study procedures has been given elsewhere . Briefly, the study procedure was as follows: all apparently eligible subjects received further study information and were invited to take part. Those who affirmed the invitation were invited to have their body weight and height measured near or at their worksite, in order to assess their BMI. Employees with a BMI < 25 kg/m2 were subsequently excluded.
After baseline measurements (body weight and height), the 1386 employees subjects with a BMI ≥ 25 kg/m2 were randomized to one of the three study groups and either to a group receiving basic weight measurements (80% of each study group) or to a group receiving additional measurements (i.e., waist circumference, sum of four skinfolds, blood pressure, total cholesterol level, and aerobic fitness) (20% of each study group). This two-step randomization meant that there were six groups an employee could be assigned to. Randomization to these six groups was done by block randomization, with each block containing 18 allocations. A computerized random number generator drew up an allocation schedule. An administrative assistant put the group allocation in opaque sealed envelopes, numbered 1 to 1,500. These envelopes were taken to the locations of the baseline measurements and opened in the given order. The researchers were blinded for the allocation schedule, but were not blinded for allocation after randomization. The participants were, in consequence of the nature of the intervention, not blinded for allocation after randomization. Employees were not allowed to change groups after randomization.
Follow-up measurements were done six months and two years after baseline. In addition to the measurements, participants completed surveys regarding their, among others, physical activity level, dietary habits, education, smoking status and medication use at all three time points. The surveys were sent to the home address of the participant approximately two weeks prior to the measurements. Data were collected from February 2004 till November 2006 at or near the participant's worksite.
All groups received self-help materials on overweight, physical activity and healthy diet by means of standard brochures issued by the Netherlands Heart Foundation, intended for the general public. Additionally, the phone and Internet group received a distance-counseling lifestyle intervention program. This intervention program was an adapted version of previous work of HealthPartners (Minnesota, USA) that was designed according to principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy . The adaptation had involved translation to Dutch and to a Dutch tone of voice, and adaptations of cultural elements such as food and calorie charts, cooking methods, options when eating out and opportunities for everyday physical activity. The Dutch intervention was called 'Leef je Fit' (in English: 'Live Yourself Fit').
Leef je Fit, based on cognitive behavioral approach, consisted of ten educational modules that addressed physical activity and nutrition and taught lifestyle modification strategies (e.g., self-monitoring and goal-setting). Physical activities that could easily be fitted in daily life were encouraged (e.g., lunch-walking, active commuting), as well as a healthy diet with less fat, sugar and alcohol, and sufficient intake of fruit and vegetables. On the whole, the program emphasized sustainable lifestyle changes rather than weight loss. In each module, subjects were asked to complete several assignments related to the specific educational and behavioral foci of that module. The design of the program was such that subjects were able to finish any module within two weeks. The program was self-paced, but subjects had to finish the entire program within six months. All intervention subjects received personal tailored counseling support while working through the program. Counselors contacted participants in the phone group by phone to go through a module and to discuss the assignments. At the end of each call, an appointment for the next call in about two weeks was scheduled. When participants in the Internet group had completed a module their counselor received an automated e-mail about this. Thereafter the counselor checked the information the participant had provided and responded by e-mail within five working days. By way of automated e-mail reminders and, if the participant had selected this option, automated mobile phone text-messages, internet participants were encouraged to start and finish modules within two weeks. Thus, all participants had a maximum of ten counseling contacts during the intervention program. Counseling was done by four trained counselors (2 dieticians, two movement scientists) and according to two comparable standardized counseling protocols, one for each communication method. Two weeks after randomisation, the counselor initiated the intervention by contacting the employees. Participants could also contact the counselor centre themselves.
All cardiovascular risk factors and body weight and height were measured according to protocols by trained research personnel . Waist circumference (in cm) was measured twice with a tape measure (Gulick; Creative Health Products, Ann Arbor, MI, USA; range 0-150 cm) at the midpoint between the lower border of the ribs and the upper border of the iliac crest. Next, the two measurements were averaged. Skinfold thicknesses (in mm; subscapular, suprailiac, triceps and biceps) were measured twice on the right side of the body with a Harpenden caliper (HSK-BI; Baty International, Burgess Hill, UK; range 0-50 mm, graduation 0.2 mm). In case two measurements differed more than 1.0 mm, the skinfold was measured a third time. The value of the two (or three) obtained values was averaged. Next, the sum of the skinfolds at the four loci was computed. Blood pressure (in mmHg) was measured twice with a fully automated blood pressure monitor (Omron HEM 757 E [M5-I]; Omron Healthcare Europe BV, Hoofddorp, The Netherlands) after the participant had rested for 5 minutes in sitting position. This blood pressure monitor is validated and recommended for clinical use . Approximately two minutes separated the two measurements during which the participant remained seated comfortably. Next, the mean value of the two measurements was computed. In case elevated (>140/90 mmHg) blood pressure levels were found, subjects were advised to visit their general practitioner.
Total cholesterol level (TC) was assessed in non-fasting capillary blood collected by finger stick. Blood was analyzed using a Reflotron® Plus (Roche Diagnostics GmbH, Mannheim, Germany), which provides a good risk classification . When a low (≤3.0 mmol/L) or elevated (≥ 6.5 mmol/L) TC level was found, a second assessment was completed and the two measurements averaged. Subjects with low or elevated TC level were advised to visit their general practitioner.
Aerobic fitness level was assessed by means of the submaximal Chester Step Test (CST) that has been shown to be a valid and reliable predictor of VO2max . During the CST subjects were required to step on and off an adjustable gym bench. The height of the gym bench depended on the participant's age and current fitness level . The test started at a relatively slow pace of 15 steps per minute. The pace increased every two minutes to respectively 20, 25, 30 and 35 steps per minute. A metronome was used to set the stepping rate. The test-instructor gave instructions throughout the test when necessary.
Subject's heart rate was monitored continuously with a heart rate monitor (Polar S610; Polar Electro Oy, Kempele, Finland). Also, the subject was asked to report his subjective rate of exertion at each increase in pace using a Borg scale . The test was terminated at the end of a stage at which the subject's heart rate had reached 80% of his predicted maximal heart rate (220 minus age), or when the reported rate of perceived exertion exceeded 14 (hard) . The estimated VO2max was calculated with software that came with the Chester step test (ASSIST creative resources Limited, Redwither Business Park, UK). The step test was chosen because of low cost, portability and ease of operation.
Body weight (kg) was measured using a digital scale (Seca 770; Seca GmbH & Co, Hamburg, Germany) with participants wearing light clothing and no shoes. Body height (cm) was measured with a portable stadiometer (Seca 214, Leicester Height Measure; Seca GmbH & Co, Hamburg, Germany). Weight and height were measured twice, and the mean value of the two measurements was computed. Next, the Body Mass Index (BMI) was calculated by dividing body weight (kg) by height squared (m2).
A priori power calculations were done for DBP and for total cholesterol. The standard deviations (SD) were based on unpublished data from the Amsterdam Growth and Health Longitudinal study. The calculation to detect a change in DBP of 4.5 mmHg (SD 10.6 mmHg) with 80% power in two-tailed tests at a significance level of 0.05, determined the sample size for each study group at 87. The calculation to detect a change in total cholesterol of 0.4 mmol/l (SD 0.9 mmol/l) with 80% power in two-tailed tests at a significance level of 0.05, determined the sample size for each study group at 80. The sample size for this study was therefore determined at 300. Loss to follow-up was not taken into account.
Linear regression analysis was used to evaluate the intervention effects on the cardiovascular risk factors. The cardiovascular risk factor level at six months or at 24 months was taken into the model as dependent variable and study group (phone, Internet and control) and baseline level of the risk factor as independent variables. Two dummy variables were created and coded such that the phone and Internet groups were compared with the control group. Subsequently, the phone and internet groups were compared: if the confidence interval of the phone group included the regression coefficient of the internet group and/or vice versa, the difference between the groups was not significant. To test whether adherence to the program influenced the intervention effects, number of counseled modules X study group was added to the model as interaction term.
All analyses were performed using SPSS software (version 12.0.1). P-values <0.05 were considered to be significant.