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Health promotion research with an iPhone

Health promotion research with an iPhone

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Wishful thinking

Imagine you, a researcher, are given a bag of money, unlimited time and personnel. What research would you do? Professor Rik Crutzen would like to know more about the mindset of people who follow an exercise programme. One that is based on data collected on mobile phones.

In Rik Crutzen's scientific habitat, Health Promotion, most studies serve concrete applications. To make people quit smoking, drink less, exercise more, eat less fat, you name it. That is also where most of the subsidies end up.

That's fine, says Crutzen, but also allocate funds to raising the level of theoretical work. What happens in people's heads when they follow a diet plan or an exercise programme? What are the difficult moments? Why do some people give up? Why, on the other hand, do others soar? “The mindset is important too, because it lies at the basis of behaviour.”

Another characteristic of health promotion is that most researchers work with questionnaires. “If you want to know how much people exercise, you ask them. But for a long time now, this has not been the only method of measuring. The fact that we all have phones in our pockets these days increases the possibilities tremendously and provides a wealth of information. Every mobile phone has a pedometer, which is becoming increasingly more accurate. A GPS, so that you can find out where someone is exercising at any particular time. There are also apps with advanced sensor technology, which track whether the owner of the phone is sitting or standing.”

That information is worth its weight in gold. “At the moment, test subjects following an exercise programme complete a questionnaire once every so many weeks. They report their physical condition, perseverance, et cetera. “Those are just random indications. We would like to follow the whole process on a daily basis, which is very easy these days. Within the project, objective digital data would be combined with short questionnaires that appear on your display, say three times a day.”

Crutzen would need three hundred test subjects for his ‘dream study’, who would send all their exercise data to the UM. “This would then be analysed, with special attention for the high and the low values, for those moments that people give up or spring into action. You would need data scientists, using artificial intelligence to search for patterns in the mountain of information.”

It is a known fact that people who are intrinsically motivated to exercise, keep it up for a longer period. “At the beginning, this is certainly not always the case. External pressure is often a reason to make a start. But along the way, some become inspired to continue and others don't. Why causes that? That is a very important question.”

It doesn't just increase the knowledge about the mindset, says Crutzen, but it also clears the way for applications. “It may become easier to get diabetic patients to exercise. Or keep heart patients from smoking. Every target group has its own highs and lows. Medication may play a role in the case of diabetics, fatigue for people who have been cured of cancer.”

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