Study: Virtual coach improves activity levels for overweight, obese

By: Brian Dolan | Feb 1, 2012        

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Virtual CoachA study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that using a “virtual coach” helped overweight or obese people increase their activity levels. Researchers at Boston-based Center for Connected Health, a division of Partners HealthCare, and Massachusetts General Hospital found that virtual coaches increased step counts by a significant amount. Participants in the study wore wireless, Fitlinxx pedometers.

While JMIR just published the study, the data was collected and analyzed in 2008.

“New technologies are showing great promise as effective, accessible and inexpensive solutions to a number of chronic health conditions and Internet-based interventions are demonstrating reductions in weight using a combination of self-monitoring, education and motivational messaging,” stated Dr. Joseph Kvedar, Founder and Director, Center for Connected Health, and study co-author. “We believe these results may be further enhanced with the addition of automated coaching, to promote accountability and adherence.”

Another co-author of the study, Timothy Bickmore, Associate Professor of computer science at Northeastern University, developed the Virtual Coach technology used in the study.

Seventy obese or overweight patients participated in the study. The average age was 42 years old. About 84 percent were females and 97 percent of those participating were college educated. Study participants were asked to wear a wireless pedometer and were given access to a website where they could view their step counts. Half of the group also met with a Virtual Coach, which is an automated and animated computer agent, on their computers at home. This application helped the intervention group set goals and also provided personalized feedback based on how well they were doing. Those with access to the virtual coaches were told to meet with them three times a week for about five to ten minutes.

During the 12-week study those with access to the virtual coach showed significant improvement when compared to those without access to the coach. The average step count in the control group fell from 7,174 steps to 6,149 steps. The average step count for those with access to the coach went from 6,943 to 7,024 steps.

By the end of the study, in other words, the control group walked half a mile less.

Read the full study over at JMIR’s site.
Or read more about the study in the press release below:

‘VIRTUAL COACH’ INCREASES ACTIVITY LEVELS IN FIGHT AGAINST OBESITY EPIDEMIC ACCORDING TO NEW STUDY FROM THE PARTNERS CENTER FOR CONNECTED HEALTH

BOSTON, JANUARY 31, 2011 – The use of a ‘Virtual Coach’ or computer agent increases activity levels in overweight or obese individuals, according to a new study published in the current issue of the Journal of Medical Internet Research. Conducted by the Center for Connected Health, a division of Partners HealthCare, and Massachusetts General Hospital, data showed a significant percentage change in step count for participants with access to Internet-based coaching, versus those without access to the Virtual Coach. The Virtual Coach technology was developed by Timothy Bickmore, PhD, Associate Professor, College of Computer and Information Science, Northeastern University, a co-author of the study.

“New technologies are showing great promise as effective, accessible and inexpensive solutions to a number of chronic health conditions and Internet-based interventions are demonstrating reductions in weight using a combination of self-monitoring, education and motivational messaging,” said Joseph C. Kvedar, MD, Founder and Director, Center for Connected Health, and study co-author. “We believe these results may be further enhanced with the addition of automated coaching, to promote accountability and adherence.”

The study included 70 overweight or obese patients, with a mean age of 42 years. The majority of patients were female (84%) and college educated (97%). Participants were asked to wear a wireless pedometer and given access to a website to view step counts. The intervention group (n=35) also met with a Virtual Coach, an automated, animated computer agent, via their home computers. The Virtual Coach helped participants to set goals and provided personalized feedback based on their step counts.

Intervention participants were instructed to meet with the coach three times a week throughout the study. These interactions lasted approximately five to ten minutes per session. The intervention group showed a significant improvement throughout the 12 week study, when comparing percent changes in step counts, over participants who only received a pedometer and access to a data website.

The step count throughout the study was significantly different in intervention versus control arms (p = 0.02). The average step count in the control group fell significantly from 7,174 to 6,149 (p=0.011) over the study period. In contrast, the intervention participants’ mean step count (6,943 to 7,024) did not change significantly (p=0.85).

“Virtual Coaching has many applications beyond promoting activity and is increasingly recognized as an important component in the management of chronic conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, and in the promotion of healthy behaviors, such as adherence to medication,” added Kvedar. “Given the growing burden of chronic disease and the shortage of providers, this technology may prove useful adjuncts to conventional office based care, to help patients develop better self-management skills.”

All participants reported having benefited from taking part in the study and self-reported changes included exercising more frequently and improved diet and eating habits. 58.1% of participants in the intervention group agreed that the Virtual Coach motivated them to be more active, and 87.1% reported feeling guilty if they skipped an appointment with the Virtual Coach.

“With a growing population of aging baby boomers and an ongoing shortage of healthcare professionals, a Virtual Coach can help bridge the gap to help remind and motivate people to stick to a care plan or wellness regimen,” added Bickmore. “The Virtual Coach and other relational agents have an important role in health and wellness, as proven by studies like this.”

The Virtual Coach is a computer-animated advisor and simulated face-to-face conversation, including verbal and non-verbal communication, including goal setting, positive reinforcement, problem solving, education and social interaction. Dialogue was tailored based on the participant’s progress, current status against their goals and interaction with the Virtual Coach (i.e., asking the Virtual Coach a question or asked for help).

About the Center for Connected Health The Center for Connected Health, a division of Partners HealthCare, is creating effective, new solutions and innovative interventions to deliver quality patient care outside of the traditional medical setting. Our programs use a combination of remote- monitoring technology, sensors, and online communications and intelligence to improve patient adherence, engagement and clinical outcomes. The Center also offers expert online second opinions, virtual visits, and engages in innovative research to uncover new models for better care. The Center’s Consulting Services assist companies, providers and other organizations to learn more about entering the connected health space and to prepare products and services for integration into the healthcare delivery system. Visit www.connected-health.org.

Boston-based Partners HealthCare is an integrated health system founded in 1994 by Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital. In addition to its two academic medical centers, the Partners system also includes community and specialty hospitals, community health centers, a physician network, home health and long-term care services, and other health-related entities. Partners is one of the nation’s leading biomedical research organizations and a principal teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School. Partners is a non-profit organization. Visit www.partners.org.

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  • http://twitter.com/eysenbach Gunther Eysenbach

    Thanks for covering this neat study. JMIR is open access, so the link above is not to the “abstract”, but to the full paper.

    Also, journalists and bloggers should get into the habit to include the original citation:

    Watson A, Bickmore T, Cange A, Kulshreshtha A, Kvedar J
    An Internet-Based Virtual Coach to Promote Physical Activity Adherence in Overweight Adults: Randomized Controlled Trial
    J Med Internet Res 2012;14(1):e1
    URL: http://www.jmir.org/2012/1/e1/

  • MobiHealthNews

    Thanks, Gunther. Fixed.

  • http://twitter.com/ZimJay Zimfara Janus

    Empire burlesque.Say and do nothing about our globally rejected toxic #GMO food supply.Put a pedometer on em and hook up the internet, that’ll work.
    Pathetic.