To sit less and promote healthy aging, artificial intelligence may be key

We all know that sitting for long periods of time affects our health and wellbeing – and not in a positive way.

Because of this, researchers from the Northeast are studying how to get people to sit less and exercise more throughout the day. Diego Arguello, PhD student in the Exercise Science Laboratory at Northeastern, is conducting a clinical study funded by the National Institute on Aging looking at the use of artificial and human intelligence to combat what has become a sedentary epidemic in modern life related to early death and poor health.

Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began issuing exercise guidelines to help Americans keep fit more than a decade ago.

“That’s the kind of generic recipe for chronic disease prevention and healthy aging,” he says.

Newer guidelines have since started to raise the alarm about the effects of regular and prolonged sitting on long-term health, sparking a wave of research into the harmful effects of this everyday behavior.

Doctoral student Diego Arguello is helping to “coach” the participants in his clinical study on healthy aging and AI. Photo by Matthew Modoono / Northeastern University

Arguello says that even those who follow the CDC’s daily exercise recommendations but sit for extended periods of time during the day are at higher risk of disease than those who follow the recommendations and sit less.

The problem is that there are still no recipes for sitting less.

Before starting the study, Arguello and other researchers from the Northeast conducted a separate study testing sit-stand and treadmill desks in the administrative offices of Massachusetts General Hospital. The results helped set some of the goals for the ongoing study.

“We found that you can give someone in the office a modification to interrupt their sitting time, but if there isn’t that motivation or the coaching doesn’t say on the way there, it tends to fall off,” he says. “Then suddenly they are back to their old habits.”

The group approach is to address motivation and help participants overcome the barriers to being physically active throughout the day. This can mean several minutes of squats at work, stretching, a short walk outdoors, or simply more frequent breaks where you get out of the chair and move around.

The study is aimed at adults over 60 years of age.

Graduate student Diego Arguello is working on a study funded by the National Institute of Aging to use AI to improve and maintain the physical activity and fitness of older adults. Photos by Matthew Modoono / Northeastern University

A common misconception about achieving optimal health and fitness, says Arguello, is that it requires a gym or a structured investment of time. Another misunderstanding: To protect yourself from chronic diseases, you need a six-pack body. A third: You’re not doing it right unless you’re sore.

“What I like to tell my subjects is: Don’t think of physical activity or exercise as a formal thing to plan,” says Arguello. “To be physically active, I don’t have to plan an hour of my day for a long walk, a bike ride or a swim.”

This is where technology and AI come into play. The researchers remotely monitor participants’ activities using an accelerometer that detects movement to measure how active they are throughout the day. The Fitbit-like devices were developed using proprietary algorithms by researchers at Northeastern mHealth group and the Bouvé College of Health Sciences.

The sensors that the participants wear around their wrists provide Arguello movement data that indicate certain behaviors such as sitting, walking, standing, cycling and sleeping.

Arguello and his team then check in with participants throughout the day to help them meet their fitness goals, which are defined by step counts or some other personalized metric. These conversations are a crucial part of guileless work to socialize the process of activity throughout the day and empower individuals to take more control over their physical and mental well-being.

The automation of health and wellness tools is already well underway – and practically an industry of its own, says Arguello. Look no further than the deluge of smartphone applications that offer everything from guided meditations to near-accurate biometric measurements of a range of body functions.

But without “human thinking and troubleshooting” to complement the work of the AI, says Arguello, some of the behavioral changes he sees in the study participants would not be possible.

“People communicate that they learn a lot about how to be physically active and how to incorporate (sport) into their lives in ways that they never thought possible,” says Arguello.

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