Engaging adolescents in healthy lifestyle choices through smart technologies

Engaging adolescents in healthy lifestyle choices through smart technologies

Viewpoint article by Florence Jimoh, FoodWiz

The number of smart devices available on the market is growing rapidly, including stand-alone devices such as tablets and phones, with many now being used as ‘health monitors’ by consumers. A number of wearable gadgets, which link to smart devices to help users monitor certain aspects of their lifestyle, are also available. The latest come courtesy of Microsoft in the form of its wristband and the long anticipated iWatch from Apple although the latter is less health-focussed than originally suggested. It appears there is a real market for these devices and smart approaches, but are they merely for the health conscious or can they also have a role in helping traditionally difficult-to-reach groups improve their lifestyle or help clinicians monitor patient

There is increasing recognition that personalised approaches for lifestyle modifications may be more effective in helping people establish healthier eating patterns and take more exercise. One of the aims of QuaLiFY, a EU-funded project, is to support those trying to address poor compliance of Europeans with dietary guidelines and recommendations through personalised approaches.

Adolescence is a time of rapid growth and development when total nutrient needs are higher than at any other time in life, meaning an adequate intake of nutrients and energy is critical to development and health later in life. Dietary behaviours established during this period persist into adulthood with long-term health implications. Actively recording food intake can bring about changes in the diet of adults, but the process can be labour-intensive and difficult to maintain. Adolescents are a particularly difficult group to engage in completing diet and exercise records, and may have difficulty in perceiving the long-term health implications of current lifestyle choices.

In the UK, as part of QuaLiFY, a study has been set up to assess usability, acceptability and perceived effectiveness of a smartphone app for recording of food intake and exercise amongst adolescents, as compared to a more traditional paper-based approach. Participants aged 16-19 years from sixth forms and further education colleges are recording food intake and exercise using a paper-diary over a minimum of fours weeks and, following a short break, using the smartphone app for the same duration. Researchers conducting the study provide dietary education for participants at the start, based on government guidelines, along with educational materials reinforcing the messages. General support is provided during the paper-diary use, but the use of the smartphone app includes targeted messages sent direct to participants in response to their app activity.

The study hopes to establish whether recording food intake and exercise helps adolescents to modify their lifestyle, and whether there are any differences when using a paper diary compared with a smartphone app.