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Fitness at the touch of a button - Using technology to stay healthy

Digital technology devices are usually associated with remote controls and other energy-saving gizmos, but University researchers are looking at how they can monitor and improve fitness

Felicity Ey
Felicity Ey from the School of Medicine is taking
charge of her health as part of the school's
Healthy Living Initiative.

By Anna Osborne

They are calling them the new smartphone – not because of what they do, but because in a few years we'll all have one. The market explosion in fitness trackers – tipped to rise 46 per cent to $2.8 billion globally by 2019 – supports this view.

Interactive digital technologies, such as a Fitbit™, are changing the way we live, enabling people to collect, store and analyse data to increase activity, sleep better and burn more calories. And while there is little revolutionary about the technology – available to buy off the shelf – the University of Tasmania is leading research into how they can create healthier individuals and communities.

"Businesses want to help their staff become more active."

Associate Professor Stuart Smith, from the Faculty of Health's School of Health Sciences, has been at the forefront of research on how interactive digital technologies, like the Fitbit and video games, can actually bring about lasting behavioural change.

"Most devices will be used for around three months before people lose interest, motivation or even the device itself," he said. "I'm interested in how we can extend the technology off the shelf; of how people can use these technologies as part of long-term behavioural change."

Associate Professor Stuart Smith
Associate Professor Stuart Smith from the
School of Health Sciences wants to know
how technologies can bring about
long-term behavioural change.

In collaboration with Dr Ben Schuez and Ms Michelle Dicker from Psychology, Assoc Prof Smith will begin new research on a Fitbit-based challenge study. The study will determine the device's success if it was supported by training and/or coaching.

Assoc Prof Smith is Director at the Healthy Eating, Active Living Technology Research Centre and takes a proactive approach towards the potential of interactive digital technologies. He has developed Australia's first online university course devoted to the issue – Foundations of Technology for Healthy Living – and is putting theory into practice. He is working with business to create healthier workplaces, particularly where people are sitting for long periods.

"A lot of organisations recognise the negative health effects of sitting at a desk or computer for long periods of time without a break," Assoc Prof Smith said.

"Businesses want to help their staff become more active and have explored the potential of video games. Here, a business could have workplace game stations where staff are encouraged to get out of their chair once an hour and spend five minutes at the console playing exercise-based video games."

Trackers also are being put through their paces at the Faculty's School of Medicine. The school is hosting a 12-week Healthy Living Initiative which includes participants measuring their Bioage, before and after the program, and receiving a Fitbit. Bioage is a calculation of a person's health age identified through a series of behavioural, physical and metabolic tests. More than 100 staff have signed up for the program which also includes cross-platform media support with participants learning more about stress management, exercise and personal health.

"A work-life balance is crucial to pursuing a happy and healthy lifestyle," Head of the School of Medicine Professor Justin Walls said.

"As health professionals we are seen to lead by example. We are helping to better support and encourage our staff to make effective and long-lasting change in their lives."

Success of the program will be tracked with Medicine students undertaking a pilot study over the 12 weeks.