Friday, March 29, 2013

Researchers combat obesity with tech tools popular with teens

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 often we 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 actually hope that using this new technology will 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 an extensive library of 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.

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