Researchers combat obesity with tech tools popular with teens

Ron Recinto


The best weapon in the battle against obesity may already be in the hands of children and teenagers.

That’s the thinking behind the work of several researchers and technologists around the country who hope to turn cell phones into devices that can help young people make healthier food and lifestyle choices.

A recent Pew Internet study found that 78 percent of teens now have a cell phone, and almost half of them – 47 percent -- own smartphones with computing capability.

“It’s interesting because most people think using technology is part of the problem,” said Dr. Susan Woolford of the Pediatric Comprehensive Weight Management Center at the University of Michigan, pointing to video games and other uses of technology that have made teens more sedentary. “We’re actually using this new technology to help us.”

Woolford leads a team that sends highly tailored and targeted text messages to obese adolescents to help them change their behaviors. The messages urge teens to reduce their time in front of TV and computer screens, eat a healthy breakfast and more fruits and vegetables, and reduce the number of sweets and sugary beverages in their diets.

The initial test program had bout 25 volunteer participants -- overweight teens who are participating in university's weight management program.

To get the most effective messages to individual teens, participants in the pilot program filled out an online survey with questions about their activity level, what kind of support they have, what kind of foods they prefer and what inspires them to lose weight.

From there, the team has developed a database of 100 or so unique automated messages that are sent daily. Their goal is to get the right message at the right time to the right person.

“We aren’t going to suggest you play basketball as an activity if you said your interest was in water sports,” Woolford said.

Or if a teen prefers dairy for breakfast, the team’s text might suggest low-fat yogurt.

Woolford said the feedback from the participants has been crucial in shaping the messages.

She pointed to a text suggesting alternative snacks that said, “Instead of ice cream try frozen yogurt today." But some teens in the study were quick to point out when they see the words “ice cream” in a message they don’t see see the healthy alternative that comes later.

So, Woolford said, the text message simply became "Try yogurt this morning."

“I think technology is definitely going to help us,” she said, “It’s not just sending a text message, it’s send the right text message. And if we pay attention to the content the success is greater.”

In Massachusetts, Dr. Nicolas Oreskovic is using another common smartphone feature – the Global Positioning System – to study where in a city and when young people are active.

“What urban spaces do they use for physical activity and what spaces they do not use for physical activity?” Oreskovic asked.

Oreskovic and his team based at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Child and Adolescent Health Policy had teens in Revere, Mass. wear GPS devices on their wrists and accelerometers on their hips for several months over three seasons to collect data on the location and activity of their daily routines.

By plotting the results on a city map, Oreskovic noticed that children tend to be active in outdoor spaces like parks, playgrounds, streets and sidewalks rather than indoor spaces like their home and school. He also charted when they are most active and where and when they walked to a park or playground.

Oreskovic said he hopes such studies help urban planners design cities and towns to promote a more healthy and active lifestyle in children.

If city officials had good data about how children use their sidewalks, parks and open areas, they can redesign communities with the right walking paths to the right parks, Oreskovic said. Decisions could be made using scientific data, which in turn should encourage more use of a city's parks, playscapes and open space.

Oreskovic said a next step could be to use location mapping to help teens find healthy food options and places to spend their time. The GPS on their cellphones and texting technology could be combined to point teens to a safe park to play or suggest a healthier restaurant near their favorite fast food joint.

“I think the wave of the future in these not traditional areas,” Oreskovic said. “Intervention in schools has had a limited impact. These novel technology areas are where we can individualize obesity counseling may be helpful.”

Technology is making great strides in the fight against obesity according to Dr. Philip Schauer, director of the Bariatric and Metabolic Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. Schauer said hundreds of applications on mobile and desktop and computerized devices, like smart watches and digital jewelry, are being developed to help users maintain a healthy lifestyle.

“Some of these smart watches can help us with weight, they can keep track of the steps day we take each day, the calories burning and track our weight on daily basis," Schauer said.

"There’s all kinds of apps, more and more come out each day and it’s hard to keep track of them,” Schauer said. “I even think they are working on one where you can take a picture of the food eating with the camera on your smartphone and an app tells you how many calories it is.”