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Help from a virtual friend goes a long way in boosting older adults' physical activity

Last year I wrote about a Stanford study showing that computer-generated phone calls were an effective, low-cost way to encourage inactive adults to exercise. Now the researcher of that study, Abby King, PhD, has found that physical-activity tips, reminders, and encouragement from an interactive computer character - this one named Carmen, who introduces herself in the video above - can also get adults moving. King's study involved 40 inactive and low-income adults, ages 55 and older, from a primarily Latino population in San Jose, Calif., who:

...were randomly assigned to a four-month walking intervention, coached by Carmen the virtual adviser, or to a control group. Those in the intervention program were taught to use a pedometer to track their daily steps. During weekly sessions, Carmen evaluated their pedometer information to provide them with personalized feedback, problem-solving and goal-setting. Participants were encouraged to interact weekly with Carmen, who was made available to them through a computer at a local senior center.

The researchers looked at the change in walking behavior at two months and four months, and also assessed whether the participants were adopting any strategies taught by Carmen. After four months, the researchers found that participants increased the amount of time they walked by an average of about 253 minutes each week — eight times more than the increase in the control group.

King says she and her colleagues expected that Carmen - who was designed to fit in with local Latino culture and to offer interactions in English or Spanish - would be popular among study participants. But she was "surprised and gratified" that those in the intervention group did so well, and that so many participants requested continued access to Carmen after the study period ended.

King and her Northeastern University colleagues, whose work appears online today in Journal of Health Communication, are now planning a larger study to assess Carmen’s effectiveness as a personal adviser over a longer time period. "We believe that, with some additional development and larger-scale testing, these types of virtual adviser programs have the potential for wide adoption and dissemination throughout other communities,” King told me.

Previously: What type of smartphone apps are effective for promoting healthy habits among older adults?, Computer-generated phone calls shown to help inactive adults get – and keep – moving, Eat a carrot and exercise – or your iBird dies and Research shows remote weight loss interventions equally effective as face-to-face coaching programs

Video by Relational Agents Group, Northeastern University

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