U of M study looks at using tech to get people active

It’s not exactly surprising when it’s nice out, more people get out. A new study out of the University of Minnesota looked at how technology, specifically an app push alert or digital nudges from a phone, can best encourage people to exercise and how the weather plays a role.

"How do we get people to be active? Because folks sitting at home, not moving a lot, we found that to be a very bad epidemic," says technology professor Jason Chan with the Carlson School of Management. "In fact, the WHO finds about 80% of the global population is leading a sedentary lifestyle, and that can lead to a whole host of issues including heart diseases, diabetes, and even mood-related conditions like depression or anxiety. At the same time, the interventions to get people active doesn't seem to have a lasting impact. So, we started to wonder is there something we can do to make the interventions more effective?"

Chan co-authored the study with an intern at an undisclosed app company out of Asia. "People will be able to guess what it is," says Chan.

During the last two fall seasons, they sent messages to participants overseas challenging them to get out and do 10,000 steps. The wording was different based on sunny skies vs. cloudy. They found on sunny days people completed the 10,000 steps more often when the digital nudge had a negative tone, for example. "You run the risk of heart disease, if you don’t exercise."

On more gloomy days, positive wording did the trick such as: "You will have improved health conditions. If you go exercise." 

"I strongly believe as technology professor, IT apps, all of these things, we could extract value out of it," says Chan.

Chan was called upon for this study in part because of his history of authoring multiple award-winning studies looking at how our time with devices impacts our health in various ways. One of his papers found a link between Craigslist usage in the personal category reflects an increase in community HIV. More recently he helped create and test a social media blocker. This study found cutting out Facebook, Instagram, TikTok or any social media cold turkey doesn't necessarily increase usage of other work-based programs such as Word or Excel.

"We found fully blocking people actually is detrimental to their work time," says Chan. "People need a short break, unwind, be creative."

While we all know too much screen time and technology is to blame for various health problems, ranging from depression to body issues, opinions vary on whether people want more digital reminders at all.

"There's pros and cons. Sometimes it’s too much of a distraction," says one avid runner in Minneapolis.

Another says, "You don’t want to overdo anything. Overconsumption of anything is bad."

That's part of the reason Chan believes these and future collaboration between academia and tech firms, figuring out positive usage is critical.

"Just like a knife, a knife if you use it as a weapon… Yes, it will hurt people. But if you use it in the intended way to chop food you can use it to prepare a very nice meal that is nourishing to your body," says Chan. "All of these businesses that are coming up with technology pieces on one hand and yes, they want to make money. At the same time, I truly believe the COOs and CEOs up there, they want to help the population."

Chan aims to them do just that.

"I would like to see a world where technology can be used for good."