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Wearables, Game App Help Boost Exercise Levels

Woman walking and reading

(Francisco Osorio, Flickr)

13 July 2018. A study assessing FitBit devices and a game-style mobile app shows a combination of the technologies results in more exercise by office workers, at least at the outset, than just the FitBit alone. The findings of medical and informatics researchers at University of Iowa in Iowa City appear in the 3 July issue of the Journal of the American Heart Association.

A team led by Philip Polgreen, professor of epidemiology and internal medicine, and Lucas Carr, professor of physiology, are seeking more effective methods for people who sit all or most of the day in their jobs to get more exercise. The authors cite a number of statistics showing work environments becoming increasingly inactive, with more than 4 in 10 service jobs (43%), now considered sedentary. Moreover, people in office jobs spend as much as 89 percent of the time sitting, making them more susceptible for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, and depression.

The Iowa researchers took an approach that tries to integrate exercise into individuals’ work days, rather than encouraging exercise before or after work alone. Polmgreen, who has a background in mathematics as well as medicine, enlisted colleagues in the university’s computer science department to write a smartphone app called MapTrek that overlays the number of steps taken by users to various scenic places, such as the Grand Canyon or Appalachian Trial, using the Street View feature of Google Maps. MapTrek takes data from accelerometers, such as those in FitBit devices that measure activity, and moves avatars through the mapped territories, where individuals can track their progress. The app also has group features enabling users to post their results compared to others, and hold competitions within the groups.

Polmgreen, Carr, and colleagues recruited office workers for a clinical trial testing the ability of Fitbit devices and the MapTrek app used as a game with competitions among participants, compared to FitBit devices alone. The 146 participants enrolled in the study and who sit at least 75 percent of the time in their offices, were randomly assigned to use FitBits and MapTrek, or just wear the FitBit device. The researchers from Polmgreen’s and Carr’s labs then tallied the number of steps per day, and amount of activity time each day, recorded by the devices for 10 weeks.

The results overall show participants using the MapTrek app and FitBit devices recorded nearly 2,100 more steps per day and were active 11.2 more minutes per day than the FitBit only participants. In both groups, individuals began taking part enthusiastically, but the number of steps and activity time per day dropped steadily during the 10-week period. While the MapTrek and FitBit participants continued to report more steps taken per day throughout the test, by the end of the 10 weeks the FitBit only participants were spending slightly more time being active than the MapTrek and FitBit group.

“Over 10 weeks, the gains in activity declined and the two groups looked similar by the end of the study,” says Polmgreen in a university statement. “But, we are encouraged by the big initial increase in daily steps and are now looking to improve the game in ways that result in longer changes in behavior.” Carr adds, “The value of this kind of approach is virtually anyone can play it with minimal risk. Nearly everyone can benefit from increased levels of activity.”

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