Inspired by generations of successful spouse-based nagging, Abby King, professor of health research and of medicine at Stanford, and her colleagues are studying the beneficial effects of having our beloved gadgetry prod us towards healthy lifestyles.
In a study that appears in the February issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, King showed that specially programmed PDAs, or personal digital assistants, can prod middle-aged and older Americans—the most sedentary segment of the U.S. population—into increasing their physical activity levels. This first-generation study follows on the heels of King’s research report in the December issue of Health Psychology, in which she showed that automated computer calls were almost as effective as live health educators in coaxing people previously less active to get more of a spring in their step.
The Dell Axim X5, chosen for its large-sized, easy-to-read screen and good contrast, was fitted with a program that asked participants approximately three minutes’ worth of questions.
Among the questions: Where are you now? Who are you with? What barriers did you face in doing your physical activity routine? The device automatically beeped once in the afternoon and once in the evening; if participants ignored it the first time, it beeped three additional times at 30-minute intervals. During the second (evening) session, the device also asked participants about their goals for the next day.
With this program, participants could set goals, track their physical activity progress twice a day and get feedback on how well they were meeting their goals. After eight weeks, the researchers found that while participants assigned to the PDA group devoted approximately five hours each week to exercise, those in the control group spent only about two hours on physical activities—in other words, the PDA users were more than twice as active.
One surprise was the participants’ positive response to the program’s persistence. The PDA users liked the three additional “reminder” beeps that went off if they failed to respond to the first one. In fact, almost half of them wound up responding to the PDA only after being beeped for the fourth time.
So what’s next, after PDAs?
“Cell phones, for sure,” King said. “Especially now that we have the iPhone its big screen would be very useful for providing visual feedback.” She and her colleagues are also continuing to focus on developing portable devices capable of interacting with accelerometers (activity monitors), so that the necessary information—for example, the amount of walking in a day—automatically transmits to the device.
Apple fan boys beware, Professor King is setting her sights on your sexy iPhones. This looks like a way to burst open the geriatric market for Steve Jobs to conquer.
Press release: Hand-held computers prod older adults to exercise more, Stanford study shows