Northeastern University

Play your way to healthy

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Photo via Thinkstock.

Photo via Thinkstock.

Perhaps you’re like me and the only thing that even comes close to getting you to exercise is the threat of paying a boatload of cash each day you forgo an elevated heart rate (I have an app that makes me pay if I don’t work out).

Or perhaps you’re more like my coworker Casey, an exercise fiend who is vaguely addicted to the notion of a quantified self (which I am too, even though my quantifications are significantly inferior to Casey’s, whom I once spotted wearing both a FitBit Flex and a Jawbone Up at the same time).

Regardless, there is probably some kind of health app or device out there eager to get your dough–out of your middle and out of your wallet alike. The only problem, according to many personal health informatics researchers, is that most of what’s on the market right now is seriously lacking in the evidence-based study department.

One researcher told me that most health related apps and devices are actually classified as “entertainment programs” because there is virtually no scientific evidence backing up claims that they’ll help us eat more nutritiously, exercise more vigorously, live longer, live healthier, etc.

And though many of them may have good track records, that’s likely because the people who download these apps and purchase these devices are already in the “action” or “maintenance” phase of the so-called “transtheoretical model of behavioral change.” The people that could most benefit from health apps are perhaps least likely to seek them out.

But suppose you had more at your disposal than a slew of data points telling how your BMI, average pace, total mileage, weight, and body fat percentage have changed over time. Because perhaps those aren’t really all that valuable after all.

“The goal is to reinforce lifelong well being,” post doctoral researcher Shree Durga told me last week. “We need to give real importance to lifelong well being.” Metrics like calorie consumption and weight loss are going to mean different things for different people at different stages of health, she said. So her theory, and that of professor Magy Seif El-Nasr, whose lab Durga is a member of, is that engaging people on a more holistic level could have more of an impact than numbers alone.

Sign up to participate in a study assessing the long term health impacts of Spa Play.

Sign up to participate in a study assessing the long term health impacts of Spa Play.

Seif El-Nasr is spearheading research on a game called Spa Play, developed by Lisa Anders of Ignite Play, a health and wellness computer game company based in Vancouver, Canada. Seif El-Nasr advised on the design and development of the game and is now interested in learning about its long-term health impacts.

At the begining of the year, Durga lead a six-week pilot study to examine how users interacted with the game, which is similar to games like FarmVille and The Sims, offering a blank palette of land (in this case, a tropical island) for players to develop through continued engagement. The difference between Spa Play and these other games, however, is that the majority of the play takes place outside of the virtual world.

When players do things in their real lives, like drink eight glasses of water in a day or switch out an apple for a candy bar or go for a walk during their lunch break, they get points in the game. More points means more fun to be had in the virtual world. And more fun in the real world too: Points also add up to gift certificates from different active living vendors, like My Yoga Online and Tracktivity.

With the pilot data in hand, the team now has a sense of how people interact with the game and the kinds of things they like to do in it. For instance they now know that players enjoy community-based “quests,” such as a local running group that earns points collectively, and real time interactions with other players. But now they want to find out if the game actually does anything for the players in return.

Seif-El Nasr has launched a larger study that will follow players over the course of three-months to find out wether the game promotes long term health behavior change. I mentioned the transtheoretical model (TTM) earlier and that wasn’t just to prove I know a big word. Durga’s team is specifically targeting people in the contemplation, preparation, and action stages of this model, which assesses a person’s willingness to act on a new, healthier behavior. She wants to find out if the game helps players progress from one stage of the model to the next, moving, for instance, from wanting to want to be healthier, to wanting to be healthier, and then actually taking steps to get there.

She’s hoping for several dozen participants, each of whom will be rewarded with a $50 gift card for their participation over the three months as well as the free use of a FitBit Flex during that time.

If you’re interested in partaking in the study, sign up here and then take this short survey to determine your eligibility and you will be contacted by the research staff promptly.


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