It may seem counter-intuitive, but using social media can actually help make you more active. And quite significantly so, if pioneering work by Senior Research Fellow Dr Carol Maher is any guide.
A randomised control trial on the first iteration of her Active Team mobile app showed users increased their physical activity by an average of 2¼ hours a week. In physical activity research, that’s a pretty impressive number. “Often we’d be happy with a change a lot smaller than that,” she said.
Active Team, which was funded through a Heart Foundation Fellowship and a grant from the South Australian Department of State Development, was one of the first attempts anywhere to build a social component into an exercise program. Friends get involved via Facebook and can both challenge and help each other to be physically active – and offer virtual rewards when challenges are met. The primary goal is to take 10,000 steps each day.
“It’s a fast and evolving space to work in,” Dr Maher said. “Only four years ago when we started this people would say ‘what evidence do you have that people would want to use Facebook for something like this?’ but now no-one would question the idea. Social networking is in all walks of life.”
The early success of Active Team spawned two successful projects to structure and brand the program for specific user groups - Adelaide Mums Step It Up and Get Up Girl (targeting teenagers) – but Dr Maher and her colleagues have now received NHMRC funding to take things a lot further.
The new project has two components. The first will further refine the concept and make the app even better. The second will determine how to cost-effectively get it out to the world.
The first part is about good science. They will monitor 450 people from around Australia as they use the program for 100 days (double the previous trials) then for 12 months afterwards. Participants will use a pedometer to monitor their activity during the trial, but later wear an activity meter which tells them nothing, but gives the researchers a phenomenal amount of data (around 80 bits a second) about how active they are in daily life when no longer part of a research project.
The second part is just as complex. The researchers not only have to decide which are the best options to build into the app to give it general appeal, they have to work out how to use Facebook to get the program out to new users.
“Facebook is great because it’s a cheap way to reach a huge number of people compared with TV ads or billboards but it doesn’t come without cost,” Dr Maher said. “Facebook has made it harder to reach new people because that’s the way it makes money.
“It used to be if you had a friend who posted stuff that was getting a lot of likes and comments you could pretty much guarantee it was going to appear on their friends’ news feeds. But now it’s a lot more random than that. Very complex algorithms decide who it’s going to go to.”
Fortunately, Dr Maher has access to some good “inhouse” assistance. Associate Professor Karen Nelson-Field, the Director of UniSA’s Centre for Digital Video Intelligence, is an international specialist in this area.
A third component to the new project is working out where Active Team (by whatever name it is ultimately known) fits into the market. Dr Maher says she no longer has this space to herself, as a number of commercial products have emerged, but she still has two major advantages.
The first is cost. The app will be free and most mobile phones have a pedometer built in these days, so you don’t need more than your phone to get involved. The second is the really strong focus on the social aspect – with a large range of different challenges and opportunities to work as a team. “With the new project funding we can build in a lot of the neat features that we couldn’t afford before,” she said.