Play your way to healthy

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.