Investigating the influence of wearable activity - tracking technologies on behaviour change in people aged 55 and over

Minocha, Shailey; Banks, Duncan; Holland, Caroline and Palmer, Jane (2017). Investigating the influence of wearable activity - tracking technologies on behaviour change in people aged 55 and over. In: 3rd Centre for Behaviour Change Digital Health Conference: Harnessing Digital Technology for Behaviour Change, 22-23 Feb 2017, Mary Ward House, Tavistock Place, London.



Our research project ( at UK’s Open University and in collaboration with Age UK Milton Keynes aims to investigate whether behaviour changes in people aged over 55 years through the use of wearable activity-tracking technologies. Example technologies include those from Fitbit, Jawbone, or smart watches from Apple or Samsung. Typically, these devices record steps walked, sleep patterns, or calories expended. 
The benefits of regular physical activity for older adults and those with chronic disease and/or mobility limitations are indisputable. Regular physical activity attenuates many of the health risks associated with obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression and anxiety, and cognitive decline. As physical activity levels among older adults (both with and without chronic disease) are low, facilitating an increase in activity levels is an important public health issue. Walking has been identified as an ideal means of low-impact, low-risk physical activity that can boost physical and mental wellbeing. An author of a recent study said: “Physical activity may create a ‘reserve’ that protects motor abilities against the effects of age-related brain damage”. Walking has been shown to improve cognitive performance in older people. Our previous research has shown that walking with others can help reduce social isolation and loneliness among people aged 55 and over.

In our year-long project (May 2016 – April 2017) and funded by the Sir Halley Stewart Trust, we have given activity-trackers to 17 participants in the age range from 55 – 80. Through monthly workshops, diaries that the participants are maintaining and sharing with us on a weekly basis, and through one-to-one interviews with them, we are investigating how the behaviours of our participants is changing – whether there is an increase in their activity such as walking or gardening, lifestyle changes, attitudes towards food/diet, and so on. There is already some evidence emerging such as: increase in activity levels in all the participants; increased awareness of food intake; and sharing of data with the GPs to diagnose the non-optimal sleep patterns (one of them now has a treatment plan in place for poor sleep). A couple of participants have joined the gym when they realised that their desk-based work-life doesn’t give them the opportunity to stay active during the week.

In addition, we have conducted two surveys: the first survey is aimed at people aged 55 years and over who are already using these devices - to investigate their experiences and the changes in their behaviours that they perceive; and the second survey is aimed at medical professionals to explore whether they use the data from these devices for diagnosis and intervention. Most importantly, do medical professionals use data from these devices to determine the behaviour or lifestyle changes in people aged over 55 years?

The Open University's Human Research Ethics Committee has approved the research design of this project (HREC/2016/2191/Minocha/1).

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