New app tested in Vancouver schools tackles childhood obesity

With a limitless stream of apps to download and an online world of distractions, kids are spending more time in front of screens and less time being active. The result, says one UBC professor, may partly explain the increasing percentage of children being overweight or obese.

UBC professor and Peter Wall Faculty Associate Guy Dumont learned about this problem in 2011 from a friend working in Pediatric Endocrinology at BC Children’s Hospital. Three years later, his unique solution was tested in a Vancouver-area school.

“There have been lots of interventions to try to get children to exercise and be more active and go outside,” says Dumont. “Most of them have failed. But kids love to play games. If we can make the game dependent on their physical activity then maybe we could motivate them to be more active.”

By tapping into the resources and partnerships available to UBC’s Faculty of Applied Science, Dumont came up with a way to encourage the “touchscreen generation” to unplug for a few hours every day: a smartphone game called Monster Manor.

“We thought there is no way we can really fight that trend, so we wanted to make the problem actually part of the solution,” explains Dumont. “In other words, those kids like to spend time on their phones… we can use that to actually entice them to do more exercise and be more active, while raising their awareness that they need to be more active because inactivity is very detrimental to their health.”

Smartphones are here to stay and the effects of childhood obesity are well documented. Successfully promoting play and physical activity in spite of the pressures of technological change is the challenge faced by child health today.

“One of the main reasons why there has been a rise in childhood obesity is because they are less active,” says Dumont. “And they are less active because they spend way too much time in front of various screens.”

Monster Manor works on a reward-based motivational mechanism. A child playing the game needs to run, skip or jump, to be able to progress through the game’s levels. A sensor measures the player’s physical activity which earns them game currency. Monster Manor rewards physical play in real life with in-game unlockable characters and items.

So far the results have been promising. Guidelines in Canada recommend that children aged 5 - 17 should have 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each day to experience health benefits. The step-count equivalent of this is given as 13,500 steps. Without the game, children participating in the study did not achieve the recommended number of steps. However, children playing the game gained an extra 2500 steps, placing them well within the recommendation.

The responses have been good. “Kids liked it,” says Dumont describing how the groups of researchers and kids would talk about the game after and discuss how it could be further improved. Monster Manor was developed using feedback from children, with help from the KidsCan Youth Advisory Group, an initiative to involve children in designing better research for the benefit of pediatric populations.

 

Global News coverage shows members of the KidsCan teenage advisory group working together to help improve the Monster Manor app.

Dumont hopes that the next phase – validation of the program in different schools – will provide a clearer picture of the game’s potential. It’s also giving researchers the opportunity to work with teachers in the school system. Teachers are a strong influence on children and provide valuable feedback for the project.

Dumont is optimistic that in the future this program can be rolled out in schools and built into curriculums in a campaign to promote physical activity. Monster Manor is being validated in another Vancouver school this year.

“If childhood obesity is not controlled, it will lead to significant problems in the healthcare system. That would be more expensive to deal with rather than spending the money right now to try to prevent obesity in the first place.”

Securing the financing to keep testing and improving Monster Manor has been a recurring challenge for Dumont and his team. However, the ongoing partnership with the Peter Wall Institute’ Solutions Initiative has helped facilitate Monster Manor’s ongoing work. 

“We would not have qualified for funding under most research funding agencies,” says Dumont. He and his team have an immense amount of faith in the program, and they hope it will deliver a successful way of promoting physical activity.

“It’s a lofty goal, but I hope we get there,” says Dumont. “The technology is there.” Applying the knowledge and building the partnerships necessary to create a working solution is the key.