Game-based program boosts physical activity among diabetes patients

By making a game out of getting their daily steps, new research points to the possibility that people with diabetes could be nudged toward increasing their physical activity, with changes lasting for a full year. Since many now use apps or other digital means to manage their diabetes, this program—which utilized tools like wearable step counters and electronic scales with personalized goals—could potentially be integrated to help individuals achieve greater success. Findings from the study, conducted by a team from the Perelman School of Medicine, were published in JAMA Network Open.

Older person in doctor’s office smiling while using a fitness tracker.

“Gamification is commonly used in wellness programs and smartphone apps, but often is not designed to incorporate insights on how people behave and have not been well-tested over longer periods,” says the paper’s lead author, Mitesh Patel, the director of Penn Medicine’s Nudge Unit. “In this one-year trial, we found that gamification worked best to increase activity levels when it was designed using behavioral insights to encourage either competition with others or support from a family member or friend. This is encouraging and suggests that these interventions could be an effective way to build a lasting, new exercise habit for this population.”

Roughly one in 10 Americans have diabetes. One way to get a better control over the disease is for patients to increase their levels of physical activity. This makes their bodies “more sensitive” to insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar in the body. And that sensitivity makes their bodies less likely to suffer dangerous spikes or crashes in blood sugar levels.

Across the board, participants experienced weight loss and a reduction in blood sugar, whether they were in a gamified or control group. “This study is a great first step on building a lasting exercise habit,” Patel says. “However, more work is needed to help promote weight loss and better glycemic control. Future studies could combine gamification with other approaches to target changes in clinical outcomes.”

This story is by Frank Otto. Read more at Penn Medicine News.