Making a game of it: Contests help new moms increase their steps

A Penn Medicine study used wearable tech to foster activity in high-risk, diverse populations, specifically postpartum women to reduce their cardiovascular risk.

Fun and games could be a solution to serious problems like preeclampsia and hypertension among pregnant people and holds promise for significant progress, according to a new study from the Perelman School of Medicine. Researchers found that gamification—broadly defined as the use of specially engineered games to stimulate learning and behavioral change—could generate greater levels of exercise in postpartum individuals who developed these types of conditions. In turn, the increased physical activity can help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and death. The findings are published in JAMA Cardiology.

A person walking through a park pushing a stroller.

“Experts have long recommended that we talk to postpartum women about adopting healthier lifestyle habits to reduce their cardiovascular risk, but there was very little guidance on how to do that,” says study first author Jennifer Lewey, a cardiologist and co-director of Penn Medicine’s Pregnancy and Heart Disease Program. “The question we were trying answer was whether we could develop a digital, remote intervention to improve physical activity for high-risk postpartum women. It was a digital intervention that included gamification and what we call social incentives to improve accountability.”

Conditions like preeclampsia and gestational hypertension occur in up to 10% of all U.S. pregnancies and can heighten the risks of chronic hypertension and heart disease in the months and years following childbirth.

In the study, 127 participants received a wearable activity tracker to tally their daily steps. Roughly half of these individuals also took part in a game—designed by co-author Mitesh Patel, an associate professor of medicine at Penn and vice president for Clinical Transformation at Ascension—that assigned them to teams and offered points and achievement benchmarks for those who met or exceeded their step goals.

“Each postpartum woman was joined up with two other postpartum women virtually,” Lewey explains. “Each team started the week with 70 points, and every day a team member was chosen at random. If that person met her step goals for that day, the team got to keep its points. But if they didn’t, the team lost points.”

Making the results potentially even more impactful, about 55% of the study participants were Black, while about 42% were enrolled in Medicaid—two populations often associated with a higher likelihood of HDPs and cardiovascular risk.

“I was excited that we were able to enroll a racially diverse population,” Lewey says. “That’s important because a woman who identifies as Black or is of lower socioeconomic status has a greater burden of cardiovascular risk factors.”

Read more at Penn Medicine News.