Nav: Home

Mobile phone app designed to boost physical activity in women shows promise in trial

May 24, 2019

Activity trackers and mobile phone apps are all the rage, but do they really help users increase and maintain physical activity? A new study has found that one mobile phone app designed for inactive women did help when combined with an activity tracker and personal counseling.

Researchers said the findings offer important clues about how to make such app-based interventions successful--motivational messages and interactive feedback were notable features in this case. But they also highlight their limitations, as the app did not appear to be key in helping the women stay motivated past the first three months. Understanding what did, the researchers said, could eventually help the development of more effective technologies that can get people active and keep them active.

Funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of the National Institutes of Health, the study is one of the first to examine how an app-based program can help increase and maintain objectively measured daily physical activity. It was published online on May 24 in JAMA Network Open, a peer-reviewed online-only journal.

"We showed that if you design an activity app using an evidence-based approach, it will be more effective," said study leader Yoshimi Fukuoka, Ph.D., R.N., a professor in the Department of Physiological Nursing at the University of California, San Francisco. "Our findings could go a long way to get more people to move, particularly women."

Regular physical activity has long been shown to reduce the risk of obesity, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes and other chronic conditions. However, according to the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, nearly 80% of adults are not meeting the recommended activity level. Women across all age groups are less likely to be physically active than men. While apps and physical activity trackers have become extremely popular way to break some of those barriers, their long-term effectiveness remains unclear.

Previous activity app trials have been frequently short, and their sample sizes small, and most did not monitor activity objectively and continually. The current study, which lasted nine months, was called the mobile phone based physical activity education (mPED) trial. Fukuoka's research group designed their app specifically for physically inactive women, incorporating behavioral change strategies known to work well for this group, such as personalized goal setting, self-monitoring, social support, and feedback. It was critical, the researchers said, that the women were able to engage with the program at home.

The app, which was developed exclusively for the study and is not commercially available, had three main functions, including a pre-programed interactive daily message or video that reinforced what was learned during a beginning counseling session, and a daily activity diary to record progress. The app automatically increased the participants' activity goals by 20 percent each week to 10,000 steps daily. To improve adherence, participants received an automated message if the app had not been used for three consecutive days.

The trial involved 210 physically inactive women, ages 25 and 65. They were equally divided into three groups--a control that had no intervention but used a tracking device for the nine months of the trial; a "regular" group that got counseling and used the tracker and the app for three months, then used only the tracker for the remaining six months; and a "plus" group that got counseling and used the tracker and the app for the entire nine months. Unlike most other studies, the researchers measured women's activity every 60 seconds, every day for nine months, instead of relying on self-reported activity or intermittent activity measured by the tracker.

During the first three months, the tracker showed that, compared to the control group, the women in the regular and plus groups logged about 2,000 steps more per day, equivalent to approximately 1 mile or 20 minutes of walking. They also increased their moderate to vigorous physical activity by 18 minutes a day.

In the following six-month maintenance period, however, the regular and plus groups logged about 1,400 steps more than the control group and got in eight more minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity. Researchers said these findings show that the women were able to sustain an impressive level of activity above their starting point.

However, continued use of the app by the plus group did not add any extra benefit to help maintain this increased activity, compared to the regular group, which had stopped using the app after the first three months.

"Sustaining any behavior change is difficult in general, and in particular, sustaining the increased physical activity that resulted after the intervention," Fukuoka said. "Still, it is encouraging to see that 97.6% of women in our trial completed a nine-month visit and kept up part of their increased activity."

The researchers' next goal is to refine maintenance strategies that can help maintain those increased levels of activity over a longer period.

According to the study, the intervention appeared to be equally effective, no matter the user's age, race and ethnicity, body mass index, education, and household income, but the researchers cautioned that the findings might not be generalizable to men.

The research is part of a larger NIH effort to explore better ways to improve cardiovascular health.

"Exercise is just one pillar in a heart-healthy lifestyle and should complement other heart-healthy changes, such as choosing a healthy diet, aiming for a healthy weight, managing stress, getting sufficient sleep, and quitting smoking," said Josephine Boyington, Ph.D., the NHLBI project officer for the study. "People should talk to their doctors about what changes are best for optimizing their individual heart-health plans."
-end-
The study is supported by grant R01HL104147 from the NHLBI and by support from the American Heart Association. ClinicalTrials.gov identifier is NCT01280812.

About the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI): NHLBI is the global leader in conducting and supporting research in heart, lung, and blood diseases and sleep disorders that advances scientific knowledge, improves public health, and saves lives. For more information, visit http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov.

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit http://www.nih.gov.

NIH...Turning Discovery Into Health

NIH/National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

Related Research Articles:

More Research News and Research Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Teaching For Better Humans 2.0
More than test scores or good grades–what do kids need for the future? This hour, TED speakers explore how to help children grow into better humans, both during and after this time of crisis. Guests include educators Richard Culatta and Liz Kleinrock, psychologist Thomas Curran, and writer Jacqueline Woodson.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#556 The Power of Friendship
It's 2020 and times are tough. Maybe some of us are learning about social distancing the hard way. Maybe we just are all a little anxious. No matter what, we could probably use a friend. But what is a friend, exactly? And why do we need them so much? This week host Bethany Brookshire speaks with Lydia Denworth, author of the new book "Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life's Fundamental Bond". This episode is hosted by Bethany Brookshire, science writer from Science News.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 3: Shared Immunity
More than a million people have caught Covid-19, and tens of thousands have died. But thousands more have survived and recovered. A week or so ago (aka, what feels like ten years in corona time) producer Molly Webster learned that many of those survivors possess a kind of superpower: antibodies trained to fight the virus. Not only that, they might be able to pass this power on to the people who are sick with corona, and still in the fight. Today we have the story of an experimental treatment that's popping up all over the country: convalescent plasma transfusion, a century-old procedure that some say may become one of our best weapons against this devastating, new disease.   If you have recovered from Covid-19 and want to donate plasma, national and local donation registries are gearing up to collect blood.  To sign up with the American Red Cross, a national organization that works in local communities, head here.  To find out more about the The National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project, which we spoke about in our episode, including information on clinical trials or plasma donation projects in your community, go here.  And if you are in the greater New York City area, and want to donate convalescent plasma, head over to the New York Blood Center to sign up. Or, register with specific NYC hospitals here.   If you are sick with Covid-19, and are interested in participating in a clinical trial, or are looking for a plasma donor match, check in with your local hospital, university, or blood center for more; you can also find more information on trials at The National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project. And lastly, Tatiana Prowell's tweet that tipped us off is here. This episode was reported by Molly Webster and produced by Pat Walters. Special thanks to Drs. Evan Bloch and Tim Byun, as well as the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.  Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.