UTA study helps older adults lead more active lifestyles

University of Texas at Arlington multidisciplinary research team

Thanks to support from the W.W. Caruth Jr. Fund of the Communities Foundation of Texas (CFT), a University of Texas at Arlington multidisciplinary research team is developing a study aimed at helping older adults lead more active lifestyles.

Kate Hyun, assistant professor of civil engineering, is leading the $535,000 project. She said she and her research team are grateful to the Caruth Fund of the CFT for supporting the project, which seeks to help older adults become more active, especially those who may have become more sedentary during the pandemic.

“We’re so thankful that the Caruth Fund of the Communities Foundation of Texas places value on how impactful research can benefit all of society,” Hyun said. “UTA is committed to research that improves health and the human condition, and it’s not possible without this sort of foundational support.”

The study, Motivational Technology to Increase Physical Activity, develops a two-phase intervention for older adults to increase near-term physical activity and change behavior toward a more active life.

  • During the eight-week Phase 1, the team uses principles of behavior change and persuasion to increase physical activities through conventional methods such as texts, emails, automated voice calling and flyers.
  • Phase 2 will employ smartphone apps equipped with interactive modules to boost daily physical activities with older adults. The apps use gaming, like Pokémon Go, and feedback interaction, like Facebook.

“The research team strongly believes that providing a channel for facilitating social activities and peer engagement would directly influence older adults to promote their physical activity and social participation, which provide a buffer from chronic and infectious diseases,” Hyun said. “The proposed project is especially timely now—as our large baby-boomer generation ages amid a pandemic—because it encourages older adults to adopt an active lifestyle that will help with both prevention of disease and recovery.”

Sarah Cotton Nelson, CFT chief philanthropy officer, said the project will help improve the health of the community.

“The Communities Foundation of Texas is proud to support Dr. Hyun’s work to strengthen mental and physical well-being through promoting active movement and identifying methods to build habits for sustained lifestyle change, which will create a stronger and healthier community,” she said.

Co-principal investigators include Kathy Lee, assistant professor of social work; Angela Liegey-Dougall, associate professor of psychology; Christoph Csallner, professor of computer science; Xiangli Gu, assistant professor of kinesiology; and Steve Mattingly, professor of civil engineering.

“We seek to understand the most effective and sustainable strategies for older adults to form long-term habits that increase physical activities,” Hyun said. “The gaming framework adaptively sets daily goals and provides multiple levels of interactive physical activities, like walking one mile and taking a photo of a hummingbird or participating in Zumba via Zoom with peers.”

Lee said the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted behavioral health disparities, particularly among older adults from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.

“Our interdisciplinary research team is committed to supporting the health and well-being of those most impacted by this pandemic by utilizing a mobile app,” Lee said. “With the application of theoretical principles of human psychology and technical innovations, these vulnerable groups of older adults are expected to physically and socially stay active.”

Liegey-Dougall said the goal is to help seniors who are not engaging in the recommended amounts of physical activity, “especially those who are potentially secluded from others, which is particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic. The mobile app will not only help increase physical activity, but will improve mental health as well.”

Csallner said augmented reality is an emerging technology where lots of research on novel hardware and software solutions is happening, “so it is exciting to contribute to this area by developing solutions that improve peoples’ lives.”

“By relying on theoretical principles of human psychology coupled with technical innovations, we expect to assess the willingness-to-use, challenges and actual behavior changes from the interventions,” Mattingly said. “The study will further evaluate how older adults react to different framing strategies and identify the best strategies to nudge their behaviors toward increased activity. The collaborative research advances state-of-the-art human-machine smartphone application interaction and contributes to a new interdisciplinary framework to improve physical and mental health.”

Gu said the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted physical activity and daily lifestyle, especially in vulnerable older adults due to canceled social events and self-isolation.

“Implementing a technology-based physical activity intervention, the study will innovatively improve older adults’ physical activity and health outcomes—building muscle mass, enhancing body strength and balance to improve daily independence, reducing sedentary behaviors and increasing social participation,” Gu said.

UTA is grateful to the W.W. Caruth Jr. Fund of the Communities Foundation of Texas for its support of this project and the University’s efforts to improve the lives of older adults.

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