Researchers Are Developing a High-Tech Device to Prod Couch Potatoes Into Action

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

You know that little voice in your head? The one that nags you to go to the gym after spending a sedentary weekend watching the "Real Housewives of New Jersey" marathon on TV?

University of Southern California researchers are trying to convert that voice into a series of text messages that could motivate obese teens to get active and lose weight.

The team has devised a wireless "body area network" that includes an accelerometer, a heart rate monitor, a GPS device and a sensor that measures the electrical conductivity of skin. All the data are relayed to a phone, which transmits the information to a secure server.

The device will become so attuned to its wearer that the researchers have dubbed this the KNOWME Networks study, said Donna Spruijt-Metz of USC's Keck School of Medicine.

"We'll train the sensors to guess pretty well what you're doing," she said.

And if the network concludes that you've been parked on the couch too long on a sunny afternoon, it won't hesitate to let you know.

"We'd like to be able to ping you and say, 'You've been inactive for six hours, and your friend Courtney is three miles away and running -- there's an activity possibility for you,' " said Spruijt-Metz, an associate professor in preventive medicine.

The device can tell whether the wearer is walking, running or engaging in another form of physical activity. But there are some exceptions. The current model isn't waterproof, so swimming doesn't count. And the accelerometer has trouble sensing when the wearer is pedaling a bicycle. Engineering experts are working out those kinks, Spruijt-Metz said.

The researchers hope to strap the belts on to about two dozen high school students by the end of the year, with the ultimate goal of tracking -- and nagging -- 50 obese teens for a week.

The study is being funded by a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

-- Los Angeles Times

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