Stanford Medicine Newsletter Updates For the Local Community

Hand-held computers help promote exercise

Summer 2008

Play eases the anxiety of Bernard Dannenberg's young patient.


Today’s younger generation may reckon that “ne’er the twain shall meet” where technology and their elders are concerned. However, ongoing research by Abby King, PhD, professor of health research and policy and of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, appears to be gradually dispelling that notion.

In a recent study, King showed that specially programmed personal digital assistants, or PDAs, can prod middle-aged and older Americans—the most sedentary segment of the U.S. population—into increasing their physical activity levels.

Developing approaches to help people increase their exercise frequency, while taking into account an individual’s schedule and environment, is particularly important, she said.
“Portable computer devices are useful because they can be carried around throughout the day,” King said. “Such devices represent one kind of strategy for being able to provide individuals with the help and support they need, in a convenient, real-time context.”

Study participants were randomly assigned to an eight-week program in which they received either a Dell Axim X5 PDA or traditional handouts related to physical activity.

The PDA was fitted with a program that asked participants approximately three minutes’ worth of questions, such as: Where are you now? Who are you with? What barriers did you face in doing your physical activity routine? The device automatically beeped in the afternoon and in the evening; if participants ignored it the first time, it beeped again at 30-minute intervals.

The researchers found that while participants assigned to the PDA group devoted approximately five hours each week to exercise, those in the control group spent only about two hours on physical activities—in other words, the PDA users were more than twice as active.

In a companion study to be published later this year, King and her colleagues also evaluated the usefulness of PDAs in modifying dietary behavior. Results indicate that similar “probing” and feedback by a computer program can nudge participants toward changing their eating habits.

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