U of S uses agent of sloth to find out how active we are

U of S uses agent of sloth to find out how active we are

One of the researchers behind a tri-city study of physical activity in Saskatchewan fully understands that the tool they've chosen to collect the data rings of irony.

"There is no escaping smartphones," said Tarun Katapally on CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning.

The study asks people in Saskatoon, Regina and Moose Jaw to track their physical activity year-round through their smartphones using an app that draws on a number of built-in features like the smartphone's GPS, accelerometer and camera — including the ability to upload photos of their environment.

The irony, Katapally said, comes in the fact that smartphones may be just one of the many modern conveniences that has led to more sedentary lifestyles around the word, and a situation the population health researcher at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy called a crisis.   

"Physical inactivity is the fourth leading cause of death worldwide," he said.

Smartphones offer unique opportunity 

The goal here, said Katapally, is to involve people.

"One way to engage citizens is through their smartphones," he said. "Because of smartphones we can push questions, we can push surveys."

The benefit, he said, is that the data collected through the app will allow researchers to better understand the larger social context of activity — for example, whether participants are riding their bikes to the grocery store, standing at their desks at work, or spending time with friends and family. It will also help researchers learn more about the barriers that keep people from being active.

"It's about understanding active living patterns on a long-term basis," said Katapally.

That sort of big picture might someday not only help individuals become more active, it may also help governments adopt policies to counteract the crisis of inactivity.

Katapally said they'll begin research in three Saskatchewan cities, but one other advantage of using smartphones is that collecting the data is inexpensive, and the eventual goal is to expand the study to other communities across Canada.  

Researchers are recruiting citizens until May 31 to become involved in the study at YMCAs in all three cities. You can find out more about the study, and how to participate, here.