Medicine

Both virtual and human coaches help older adults walk more, study finds | News Center

Sedentary adults looking to spend less time on their keisters and more on their feet may find help from a virtual counselor, according to a new Stanford Medicine study.

It’s no secret that physical activity is good for the body, but studies have shown that certain populations still face challenges when it comes to meeting the recommended amount of daily exercise.

“In particular, we see that adults who are around age 50 and up tend to struggle with maintaining adequate physical activity,” said Abby King, PhD, professor of medicine and of epidemiology and population health, who was the lead author of the study. “But this is an age when people can really benefit from even small amounts of regular physical activities such as walking; it’s important for lowering the risk of a number of diseases and health conditions, such as Type 2 diabetes and obesity.”

The study targeted Latino individuals because they tend to have higher rates of obesity and diabetes, King said, and because physical activity programs in the United States are often offered only in English.

The paper will be published online Sept. 28 in JAMA Internal Medicine. Timothy Bickmore, PhD, professor of computer sciences and associate dean of research at Northeastern University, is the senior author.

For about 25 years, King and her colleagues have been running an evidence-supported physical activity advising program called Active Choices, in which advisers speak with individuals by phone to help them improve their exercise habits. The program is effective, but training people to encourage physical activity — in multiple languages and regions — can be time-consuming and expensive. King and Bickmore decided to test a different approach, one that harnessed a virtual, computer-based adviser named Carmen, which they had developed and successfully tested in a smaller pilot study.

They wanted to determine whether Carmen, who takes a digitized human form similar to a Sims character and speaks both Spanish and English, could encourage underactive adults to spend more time walking. The study, called Computerized Physical Activity Support for Seniors, or COMPASS, showed that Carmen was as effective as trained peer advisers in helping participants walk more regularly. 

King hopes that by demonstrating that virtual advisers are effective, the study will encourage the development of more such aids. In the long run, she sees this type of virtual advising as a way of improving accessibility to personalized counseling that helps normally inactive people lower their health risks through more regular physical activity.

Carmen the character

Those who know Carmen might describe her as kind, supportive, nonjudgmental and surprisingly personable. King and Bickmore drew from computer and communication sciences, as well as behavioral psychology, to imbue Carmen with the power to not only interact with participants and ask them about their day, but also provide them with personalized, simple feedback and tools that encourage regular physical activity.

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