Can Your Mobile Phone Help You Get Fit?

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John Breslin's picture
John Breslin is a lecturer and researcher at NUI Galway and co-founder of boards.ie, Ireland's largest online community. @johnbreslin


Ted Vickey (on right) with John Breslin and researchers from NUI Galway.

Can your mobile phone help you get fit? A researcher at the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUI Galway) and former White House fitness expert will pose this question at the 5th Annual Medicine 2.0 Congress which opens in Harvard Medical School, Boston, tomorrow.

Ted Vickey is a PhD researcher at the Digital Enterprise Research Institute (DERI) and the Discipline of Electrical & Electronic Engineering at NUI Galway. His company FitWell won the White House Athletic Center contract in 1995. At Medicine 2.0, Ted's presentation to delegates will show that "understanding one’s social network may be one key to better health".

"Rather than surfing in the ocean, we are surfing the web. Rather than an outdoor game of tennis under the sun, we are inside our homes playing online virtual tennis on our Wii. People drive their cars to the gym and then take the escalator to the front door rather than walking and taking the stairs," explains Vickey. "But what if technology could be the solution to our problem? What if our mobile phones could track our every step, provide healthy tips during the day, even persuade or motivate us when we need it most? This dream is now a reality all across the globe and it is called Mobile Health."

There are an estimated 13,000 health-related apps in the iTunes app store: everything from monitoring blood pressure to tweeting body weight to tracking sleep cycles. A subset of these are fitness-related apps (MapMyFitness, Nike+, etc.) for monitoring and reporting on a person’s exercise characteristics. One way to share some of this exercise activity data is through microblogging services such as Twitter.

Various studies have indicated that "lack of motivation" is a key factor in why a person does not exercise. With social sharing of exercise activities using mobile fitness apps becoming more common, understanding and leveraging one's social network may be one key to better health through exercise. However, the effectiveness of online sharing via social networks of one's physical activity has yet to be fully understood. More research and best practices are therefore needed to show how advanced social web technologies may effectively address the lack of motivation excuse, and thus increase exercise adherence/general health.

As part of his PhD research, Vickey and his colleagues at NUI Galway have collected over 4.5 million tweets sent via mobile fitness applications from around the world. These were then categorised into different classifications, in an attempt to understand the correlations between online social networking and effective exercise motivation and adherence. For each person who shared a workout online, the researchers looked at their social network structure and their online influence, while determining a fitness classification, exercise intensity, exercise duration and motivation for that person.

"Mobile fitness apps not only allow for the sharing of information between user and healthcare providers, but also with a user's friends. These self-monitoring units will help change the face of healthcare around the globe", said Vickey.

Vickey's paper, 'Estimating the Long Term Effectiveness of Mobile Fitness Apps and Exercise Motivation', has been shortlisted for the iMedicalApps Medicine 2.0 mHealth Research Award. His research at NUI Galway is funded by the Irish Research Council in conjunction with the American Council on Exercise (ACE Fitness), the largest non-profit fitness certification organisation in the world with over 50,000 professionals, and by Science Foundation Ireland. Vickey also serves on the Board of Directors of ACE Fitness.

Established in 2003 by NUI Galway and Science Foundation Ireland, DERI has now grown to become the world’s largest semantic web research institute. It engages with companies, from startups through to multinationals, to develop new web solutions. The Discipline of Electrical & Electronic Engineering at NUI Galway also offers a degree programme in Sports and Exercise Engineering, focusing on the convergence between electronic systems and exercise.

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