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NIH Grant Funding Stress-Obesity Control System

Sherry Pagoto

Sherry Pagoto (Univ. of Massachusetts Medical School)

2 February 2015. A team from University of Massachusetts Medical School and Worcester Polytechnic Institute are creating a smartphone app combined with a cloud-based data store to help people who overeat due to stress control their eating. The system known as the RELAX Application Suite is funded by a 3-year, $2 million grant from National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, part of National Institutes of Health.

The project includes research and development of technology for obese patients and their physicians needing a lifestyle intervention to reduce overeating and weight gain from stress. For some patients, stress is associated with out-of-control eating, more junk food consumption, and less consumption of healthier food items such as produce and whole grains.

The research team, headed by UMass medical school psychologist Sherry Pagoto and Worcester Tech business/technology professor Bengisu Tulu, aim to design a system that fits into interventions planned by clinicians to help patients control their weight. The system is expected to allow obese patients to track their daily activities with their smartphones, and make the data available to their clinicians who can monitor the results and make any needed adjustments in treatment.

Bengisu Tulu

Bengisu Tulu (Worcester Polytechnic Institute)

The researchers say the new system will be an improvement over most mobile solutions now available. “Most commercial apps available today focus on tracking diet and exercise, but do not help the user understand why they are eating so much and/or exercising so little,” notes Pagoto in a statement by the institutions. “Our clinical and research experience suggests that stress is a very common trigger for overeating and it is a barrier to exercise.”

The data collected will also offer a more complete picture of the patients’ lifestyle than most apps available today. The smartphone app is expected to track daily activities and events, including stress-inducing events, along with detailed eating patterns. The app will collect its data with bar code scanning, GPS coordinates, and text inputs, then provide feedback to the patient about times of day producing the most stress, itemized lists of food consumed, and the relationship between stress and their food intake. The RELAX suite will store the data in an online Microsoft Health Vault database that can be accessed by clinicians to track their patients’ progress and make changes in counseling or treatments as required.

Pagoto, Tulu, and colleagues plan to pilot test the RELAX system against a generic weight-loss app, and an intervention with no technology. The pilot test will be preceded by a usability study with patients and clinicians. Depending on the pilot test results, the researchers would then proceed with a more comprehensive clinical trial of the RELAX system combined with a brief lifestyle intervention compared to the lifestyle intervention alone.

The goal of the overall system is to devise an intervention strategy that reduces the patients’ weight and stress in half of the visits needed by traditional methods. Part of that goal is to identify the real factors causing weight gain and provide coaching or counseling on the spot to patients. “Imagine a person driving into the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant, at a certain time of day,” says Tulu, “and getting prompted with a message asking them to think about what they are feeling and whether or not it is the right time to eat.”

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