COLLABORATION

Australian partnership to tackle global obesity with research & technology

SOURCE: Victor Freitas/Unsplash
Researchers will test how digital tools can inspire lifestyle changes.

Can a mobile application help reverse the global obesity trend? Researchers in Australia are teaming up to find out.

The project to be carried out over two years will be conducted by a network of partners from the University of Notre Dame Australia, Archetype Health, the Werribee Hospital Foundation, Mercy Hospitals Victoria and the Digital Health Cooperative Research Centre (Digital Health CRC).

Researchers will look into how digital tools like the Future Me app can be used safely and effectively for weight management, with the ultimate goal of tackling the obesity crisis in both Australia and the world.

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For the study, participants will place their face on their avatar in the app and then adjust exercise levels and food intake to see how their avatar changes according to diet and physical activity. 

Previous trials have shown that these images have a psychological effect on users that could trigger behavioural changes and encourage efforts towards better weight management. The study will also undertake further testing to identify how and when such digital tools should be offered to participants.

“Computers and smartphones are increasingly a large part of our lives; we seem to be looking at a screen almost every minute of the day,” said Archetype Health Director Dr Moyez Jiwa.

“Here is an opportunity for us to do something useful with that from the health perspective.”

Moyez, who is also a Health Innovation Professor at Notre Dame’s School of Medicine, Sydney, and Melbourne Clinical School Associate Dean, said the study was not just timely but also necessary, with recent data in Australia showing that up to 67 percent of the country’s adults were either obese or overweight.

“It’s hugely important to look for solutions that could help patients make the day-to-day lifestyle changes they require in order to manage their weight more effectively and live healthier lives,” he said.

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Obesity isn’t confined to just Australia or any single nation – it is a global problem.

Data released by the World Health Organisation show that global obesity has nearly tripled since 1975. In 2016, up to 1.9 billion adults 18 years and older were considered overweight. Of these, over 650 million were obese.

Last year, the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle reported that of the global population of 7.5 billion people, 603 million adults and 107 million children were considered obese, representing 5 percent of all children and 12 percent of all adults.

Digital Health CRC CEO Dr Victor Pantano noted that obesity doesn’t just lead to health diseases and poor health outcomes, it also weighs heavy on a country’s health system and hospitals.

Digital tools, he said, could provide the answer.

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“Digital tools have tremendous potential in helping people to lose weight, and in combatting the obesity epidemic in Australia and across the world,” he said.

Mercy Hospitals Victoria Medical Director Dr Michael Dodson agreed, saying the highly personalised nature of such tools could be the motivator an individual needs to make key lifestyle changes.

“For these digital tools to work most effectively in influencing lifestyle choices, they need to be customisable enough to integrate smoothly into the daily lives of a diverse range of individuals,” he said. 

“This study is particularly valuable as it not only considers a digital tool that can motivate and influence behaviour, but also seeks to determine how that tool can most effectively be used.”