You’ve seen the headlines: America is fat and getting fatter. More than one-third of adults in the United States are considered obese (another one-third are simply overweight), and rates are even higher among African American, Hispanic, and low-income populations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Reasons for the crisis are varied, but technology, which brought us processed foods and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, is likely one of them. But what if we used the technology that is so pervasive in our lives today to help us lead healthier, more active lives?
That’s the goal of computer science Assistant Professor Katie Siek, whose expertise is in a field she and her colleagues have coined “Wellness Informatics.” Siek wants to empower individuals with software tools that can help them make healthier choices when it comes to nutrition and exercise.
Siek was awarded a $600,000 grant by the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program to develop effective interventions that take into account social and environmental considerations. The grant was funded by federal stimulus dollars—and it was the sixth CAREER award to CU engineering faculty in 2009, a record achievement for the college.
Siek and her graduate students are already working with families in two of Denver’s public housing neighborhoods with the goal of creating Personal Health Records (PHRs) that can disseminate wellness information, give personalized feedback to individuals, and track health metrics over time. She hopes that the resulting products will be useful to a wide range of people and will help prevent conditions associated with obesity, such as diabetes and heart disease.
While PHRs have been endorsed by the last two presidential administrations and large insurance groups, there has not been widespread adoption yet because usability, security, and accessibility have not been addressed. Current PHRs must be designed to better help people manage their own wellness, Siek contends.
Furthermore, “the effectiveness of these interventions has been limited for low-income communities because they have been designed with little consideration for the social and environmental context of health- related behaviors,” Siek says.
Explaining that many of the families her group is working with in Denver are Latino and new African immigrants, Siek says that language and cultural differences must be taken into account to create effective tools.
When a person is given nutritional guidelines, for example, the information must be in a form they can use. It’s one thing to know how many servings of bread and meat make up your recommended daily allowance, but how does that translate to tacos and pig’s feet? And if your doctor wants you to eat less fat and more whole grains, then what items can you buy at the fast-food restaurants that are so prevalent in your neighborhood?
Siek’s interest in wellness informatics began with her PhD work at Indiana University, which involved creating an IT application for use in dietary monitoring by low-literacy dialysis patients. In doing the project, she discovered the importance of designing culturally appropriate graphics and other tools that help people to understand and make their own choices on a daily basis.
Now she wants to expand that work into a more comprehensive application that incorporates existing data streams, such as GPS maps showing the location of healthy grocery stores, bus routes, and the like, which together with an individual’s own inputs will empower them to make healthier choices in their lives.
As part of this focus, Siek also challenged the undergraduate students in her fall 2009 Games for Health course (a section of the GEEN 1400 projects class) to develop games that are fun to play and get people exercising at the same time. Two student teams enjoyed it so much that they’re continuing to develop their inventions through independent study and research grants, which may help bring their inventions to market someday.
One musical-stairs project had students climbing the stairs on their way to class in the Engineering Center instead of riding the elevator because they wanted to play the notes of a song as they went.
In another project that won the People’s Choice Award at the Engineering Design Expo, students modified a $75 exercise bicycle with new gears and sensors and developed a computer program completely from scratch to create a block-puzzle game similar to Tetris. The faster the player pedals the bicycle, the slower the game blocks fall and the more control they have. Steering the bicycle moves the game pieces to the left and right, while switches on the handlebars rotate the pieces.
“Four people played it in class and said they forgot they were exercising—they just wanted to keep playing Tetris,” Siek recalls.
For someone with an aversion to exercise, that could be a life-changing tool.