UA Researchers Combating Obesity – One App at a Time

<p>The study is called &ldquo;Stealth Health,&rdquo; and investigators are hoping it will be a force for change among the younger set.</p>

December 01, 2009

TUCSON, Ariz. –Want your kids to exercise more and like it? As TV commercials say, “There’s an app for that.” Or there will be soon.

In a three-year study at the University of Arizona, dozens of UA students, faculty and staff, high school students and community organizations are developing a multidisciplinary project to encourage physical activity and positive nutritional habits among young people, ages 12-18.

The study is called “Stealth Health,” and investigators are hoping it will be a force for change among the younger set.

Principal investigator Scott Going, PhD, explains that the driving force behind Stealth Health is to reduce the prevalence of pediatric obesity and Type 2 diabetes. “My bias is physical activity, which goes hand-in-hand with nutrition,” he says. A professor of nutrition and physiology at the UA Colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences and of Medicine, Dr. Going contends that increased use of computers, television and video games has contributed to a sedentary lifestyle and a growing incidence of weight gain. “We need to be active our whole lives,” he says, “and we have engineered physical activity out of our lives.”

In a twist on fighting fire with fire, he and his team are looking at the creative use of technology to promote nutrition and physical activity (NPA) – specifically cell phones equipped with the latest global positioning system (GPS) technology and digital-photography functions. A “creative team” of students, headed by faculty members Nirav Merchant, director of information technology at the UA’s Arizona Research Labs and biotechnology computing at the BIO5 Institute, and Barron Orr, PhD, associate professor and geospatial extension specialist in the UA Office of Arid Lands Studies, is developing a “suite” of applications for young people to use to track, map and share information and, by the way, burn up calories, learn about nutrition and have fun at the same time.

“Kids like technology and they like cell phones,” Dr. Going says. “The challenge is to create applications that can work across all telephone platforms to connect things that are already out there.” As examples, he offers a civic-engagement project to find, photograph, tag with GPS coordinates and map buffelgrass locations in a given area to earmark the invasive plant for control and eradication measures and an educational initiative to locate and map historic sites. Walking – exercise – is implicit in these projects.

Meanwhile, as the applications, also called “widgets,” are being developed and tested, another team of students and advisers is developing brief messages for Stealth Health participants. Focused primarily on improving nutrition, these messages will be distributed to participants via their cell phones, encouraging them to think about nutrition and explore health-related information on the Stealth Health Web site.

By 2010, the second year of the project, investigators expect about 200 volunteers in the 12-18 age group from a variety of partner organizations, including 4-H, the YMCA, the Ironwood Tree Experience and Skrappy’s, a safe, positive youth and social justice community in downtown Tucson, to use, react, respond to and modify these applications as they are integrated into existing community youth programs.

At that time, protocols will be in place to measure physical and behavioral changes in participants, as young people develop projects with such descriptively named apps as the stepper, the locator, the stitcher and the recaller.

“We create the widgets that allow kids to do these things and work with our partners. The kids and the partner organizations work out the projects,” says Dr. Going. “This is a model for multidisciplinary initiatives and outreach,” he adds, noting that 4-H groups in Flagstaff are hoping to be involved and anticipating a national impact in year three of Stealth Health.

In addition to Drs. Going, Orr and Merchant, the Stealth Health research team includes: Nobuko Kay Hongu, PhD, assistant professor and nutrition extension specialist in the UA nutritional sciences department; Mimi Nichter, PhD, UA associate professor of anthropology; Denise J. Roe, PhD, senior associate dean and professor at the UA Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health; Stuart Marsh, PhD, UA professor in arid lands studies/geography; Lynne Borden, PhD, professor and extension specialist in the UA John & Doris Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences; Kirk Astroth, PhD, also a professor and extension specialist in the John & Doris Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences and director of 4-H Arizona; and Melanie Hingle, PhD, assistant research scientist in the UA nutritional sciences department and Stealth Health project manager.