The University Network

Smartphone Game Motivates People To Exercise

Researchers at the University of Iowa have developed a way to lead sedentary Americans toward a healthier lifestyle by turning everyday exercise into a friendly competition.

By designing an interactive web-based app that’s playable with a smartphone and Fitbit, the researchers found that people increased their walking steps by a significant amount when motivated by a game.

The study is published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

An interactive game

The game, dubbed MapTrek, was designed by the Computational Epidemiology Research (CompEpi) Group, a collaboration of students and faculty in UI’s computer science, internal medicine, and health and human physiology (HHP) departments.

Initially, the CompEpi group was awarded a pilot grant to develop a test platform that could monitor activity levels of prediabetic and diabetic patients.

The researchers began by creating a platform that sent text messages to patients and encouraged them to set daily activity goals, but the results showed that it wasn’t enough to motivate people.

“Our results suggested that goal-setting alone was not enough,” Philip Polgreen, a professor in the Department of Internal Medicine, said in a statement. “So, we decided to design a game with challenges and to make the game social: the result is MapTrek.”

Image: Tim Schoon

How does it work?  

The game works by syncing data from a Fitbit to the web-based design and moving a virtual avatar along a map in proportion to the number of steps a participant takes.

The researchers noted that a Fitbit was used because they’re well known and accessible, but that other fitness monitoring devices could be adapted as well.

MapTrek uses Google Maps to navigate in real time, allowing users to click and virtually see how far they’ve moved in a given space.

In this way, the idea is to incentivize activity by creating a competition between MapTrek users; while playing the game, participants are able to see how far they’ve walked in comparison to others.

“You can see what place you’re in and see where you’re at on this map,” Lucas Carr, an associate professor in the HHP department, said in a statement. “Every week, the race changes to a different place in the world — the Appalachian Trail, the Grand Canyon.”

Additionally, MapTrek sends users daily reminders to wear their Fitbit and gives participants weekly challenges and competitive bonus incentives to increase their steps regularly.

The study

To test the game, the researchers recruited 146 sedentary office workers, ranging in age between 21 and 65, who reported sitting at least 75 percent of their workday.

The participants were then divided into two groups. Both groups were given Fitbits to track their activity, but only one group was told to use their Fitbit with the MapTrek game.

Each group was monitored by their activity levels during a 10-week period.

The results

In total, the researchers found that the group using MapTrek walked 2,092 more steps each day and completed 11 more active minutes of exercise compared to the Fitbit-only group. Active minutes are defined as taking more than 100 steps.

“If a person can maintain a daily 2,000-step increase, that could result in a clinically significant improvement in their overall health,” Carr said in a statement. “It’s associated with about a 10 percent relative reduction in long-term incidence of cardiovascular disease.”

However, this spike wasn’t fully consistent throughout the 10 weeks. Toward the end of the study, the MapTrek group returned to their pre-study fitness level.

But the group still averaged more steps than the Fitbit-only participants in the end, leaving the researchers with a promising set of data.

Making exercise fun

According to Carr, MapTrek was developed with the Hedonic theory in mind. The Hedonic theory is a behavioral theory that suggests people are motivated by pleasure.

“Because of this, we try to make the game as fun as possible,” he said.

“Game theory suggests that competition and having a chance at winning are motivating factors when playing games. For these reasons, we designed the game in a way that makes each race competitive and gives every player a chance at winning.”

Next steps

MapTrek is currently being used to test its effectiveness with diabetic patients, but the researchers hope to test the game with other groups, including cardiac rehab patients and those suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“MapTrek is just one approach for helping people become more active,” he said.

“There are lots of these types of games out there. Really it’s about finding the approach that works best for the individual. If you can do that, then you can help a lot of people become more active and live healthier lives.”