Studying the effects of technology on health behaviours

It feels weird to say that I am still a student. This year I have finally been working as a health professional after two university degrees yet I have somehow found motivation to pursue study in an area of great interest to me.

This university semester I have been completing a single online unit with the University of Tasmania. The study has involved looking at the use of different forms of technology to measure levels of health.

In my five and a half years of study, I tended to mainly look at the role of nutrition and food on the outcome of health and disease states. But it was great to take a step back from nutrition and look at other behaviours (i.e. physical activity) on the risk of developing chronic diseases. Examining this is important for me as in many cases when working with clients, both food and exercise play a role in achieving health goals.

A day of great physical activity hiking up, down and through the desert in Moab, Utah.

A day of great physical activity hiking up, down and through the desert in Moab, Utah (USA).

WHAT THE EVIDENCE SAYS

  • 6-10% of all non-communicable disease (i.e. chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes) deaths can be attributed to physical inactivity (study link).
  • Physical activity lowers the rate of heart disease (including coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke), metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, some cancers and falls.
  • Being physically active leads to greater cardio and muscular fitness levels, healthier body weight and composition, healthier bone mineral density and many more benefits.
  • Even if someone is physically active (e.g. trains regularly or performs any type of planned exercise on a regular basis), if you spend most of your day sitting down at a desk/computer, your all-cause mortality risk increases (study link).
One of the many gorgeous nature walks in the Dandenongs (Victoria)

One of the many gorgeous nature walks in the Dandenongs (Victoria)

THE DIRECTION OF THE FUTURE

With quantified self technologies emerging such as FitBits, Jawbones, smartphone apps and more, society is definitely becoming more aware of health, how to measure healthy behaviours and relying on these technologies to in some cases see results.

But before all you health professionals get worried you may lose your job to an electronic device, we all need to consider the fact that many people may engage in monitoring their health levels however the devices could very well do nothing about changing their actual behaviours and motivation levels.

There have been many days where I look at my FitBit data; the number of steps I have completed and the number of ‘active minutes’ I have achieved in any given day and have seen a very low number on the screen. But some days when I am not motivated, I don’t exactly run outside to increase the figures to see better results.

Weight training with friends is always fun - especially when you use people as weights.

Weight training with friends is always fun – especially when you use people as weights.

While devices, apps and other forms of health monitoring technologies are a great way to keep an eye on activity levels, there are still many cases where people need to increase their motivation and receive individualised health advice from university qualified experts to actually experience that healthy lifestyle change.

As health professionals we should use these new forms of technology to help encourage physical activity! A big message I have learnt throughout my study is that rather than expecting people to respond to public health messages or campaigns (which often show to be ineffective in changing health behaviours), let’s get clients/family/friends to respond to fun and readily available methods for improving health. For example we can now make outdoor activities more meaningful as we can quantify exercise levels through activity trackers. Or for those young kids (or old kids!) who rely on sedentary video games for entertainment – how about we encourage games or consoles that require whole body movements (e.g. Wii Fit and motion capture technologies).

I think it is important for health professionals to work with these new apps and devices. I know when I work with clients and community members I always take note of those who use FitBits and I like to develop daily goals that can be measured with these devices to better engage my clients and to keep them motivated in between appointments.

I could go on all day about health motivation and using technology for motivating and then measuring change. But I will end by saying that overall the unit was a fantastic way to see how in some cases technology can be an effective tool. While in other cases, it may not be an effective tool for improving health and it may not be suitable to all people. Those such as the elderly, the severely ill or even those who are unable to afford such technologies will find it difficult to benefit from their use. If you are interested in using these technologies for measuring health or even to see if it will improve your motivation levels, I highly recommend you give something like a FitBit or a smartphone app a try.

However, if you are unsure and would like tailored advice, talk to a professional. An Accredited Exercise Physiologist can help with advice regarding physical activity and an Accredited Practising Dietitian can assist you with healthy behaviours surrounding food and nutrition.

IMG_4874

Having a stretch at Pyramid Rock in Phillip Island (Victoria)

Thanks to the University of Tasmania for a very stimulating unit. I’m off to charge my new FitBit Charge (with built in heart rate monitoring technology) – an upgrade from my FitBit Flex which has been measuring my fitness for the past year and a bit.

– Jenna

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3 thoughts on “Studying the effects of technology on health behaviours

  1. I have been meaning to ask you about the outcome of this unit! I know some days I have no reached my steps yet I know I went outside and did some physically activity, or I didn’t. It doesn’t change a lot for me if I’m feeling less than motivated.
    Over Easter I found that my daily steps were higher than usual & I wasn’t doing any planned activity! It’s crazy how caught up you can get on thinking about how you’ve been sitting around & eating all weekend, and yet the walks to the toilet & friends campsites really do add up! x

    • Thanks for the comment Emma! It’s very true – there is a difference between exercise which is planned, and physical activity which you can include throughout a whole 24 hours in day to day tasks.
      P.S. I remember seeing your camping instagram photos and was super jealous at the time. Camping is my fave!!

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