Associate Professor Carol Maher

Innovative app makes people more active

It may seem counter-intuitive, but using social media can help make you more active. And significantly so, if pioneering work by UniSA’s Alliance for Research in Exercise, Nutrition and Activity (ARENA) is any guide.

When Associate Professor Carol Maher trialled the first iteration of her Active Team mobile app, users increased their physical activity by an impressive 2¼ hours a week on average.

Active Team is one of the first attempts anywhere in the world 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. The primary goal is to take 10,000 steps each day.

Subsequent projects structured and branded the program for specific groups – Adelaide Mums Step It Up and Get Up Girl (targeting teenagers) – and A/Prof Maher and colleagues have since received NHMRC funding to take things a lot further.

The new project has two components. The first is further refining the concept and making 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. A/Prof Maher and colleagues are monitoring 450 people from around Australia as they use the program for 100 days (double the previous trials) then for 12 months afterwards.

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,” A/Prof 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.”