Want to be more active? There’s an app for that

2 November 2015

Learn how MSFHR-funded research supports healthy aging in the latest issue of Spark

It’s no secret that daily exercise is a vital part of healthy aging. From strengthening joints to staving off cognitive decline, physical activity helps everyone enjoy the best quality of life.

But for many older adults with impaired mobility or chronic disease, taking the necessary steps to reap the benefits of exercise can be a daily struggle. That’s why a new mobile app in its testing phase is helping older adults meet their activity goals by providing the tips, tools, and support they need to keep moving.

The plan to develop the Walk 10 Blocks app grew out of a CIHR-funded knowledge translation network called ICON (Improving Cognitive & Joint Health Network) led by MSFHR Scholar Linda Li. Seeking novel ways to improve older adults’ mobility, the ICON team found inspiration in research evidence presented by another MSFHR Scholar, Teresa Liu-Ambrose, showing that simply walking 10 blocks a day could help maintain brain size and reduce the risk of dementia. Growing evidence suggests that regular physical activity is critical in the maintenance of brain health with age.

The achievable 10-block target sparked the interest and creativity of the network’s community partners – project lead Arthritis Consumer Experts, the Alzheimer Society of BC, and the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP) – who saw an opportunity to harness the growing ability of mobile devices to encourage physical activity and support health tracking.

“I would say this is a true collaboration in the sense that the researchers brought forth what was the latest evidence, and the partnership between patients/consumers and researchers immediately was able to translate that into action,” says Li.

The test version was developed by the community partners, ICON researchers, and graduate students at the Centre for Digital Media using Apple’s ResearchKit. Test users will experience core usability features, such as blocks walked, and respond to three surveys that will guide the development of the full Walk 10 Blocks app.

While the immediate goal is to deliver health information to increase activity, Li sees future opportunities to use the app as a data-collection tool for research. The team has already met with Apple to discuss how to leverage existing iPhone functions for collecting health data.

“It’s going to be much more than just an app,” says Li. “We’re trying to create a community whereby people can do more to be physically active and at the same time help us to learn more about the effect of physical activity on our brain health and joint health.”