UCLA mHealth Project Seeks to Help At-Risk Women

Do fitness app users sometimes shake their cell phones to try to fake mandated physical activity? Yes, they do. But on the upside, many people who use an app to bolster their efforts to become healthier actually succeed.

That’s the upshot of a recent UCLA mHealth program designed to help at-risk women battling excessive weight and the attendant blood pressure, heart, and other ailments.

The story, written by Eryn Brown for the LA Times, tracks the journey of one participant named Qiana Sago.

Only 30, Sago weighed 269 pounds and had to take pills for high blood pressure. Her triglycerides were “the highest you can have,” Sago admitted. Her daily diet consisted of fast food, which as an airport custodian at LAX she found ever-present, was a big part of the problem.

But Sago and 39 other young African American women at Faithful Central Bible Church recently participated in the UCLA-backed clinical trial that employed a smartphone app to track eating and physical activity, as well as taught participants about healthful diet and exercise habits.

“Many such mobile health, or “m-health,” programs are in their infancy,” notes Brown. “But researchers and advocates for underserved, hard-to-reach patient groups hope they soon will contribute to major advances in the treatment of diabetes, heart disease and other chronic conditions.”

The prevalence of cellphones — owned by 84 percent of Americans today — provide an unprecedented opportunity to reach at-risk populations with apps that can help improve community health.

“Everyone has a phone, even if it’s a throwaway,” says UCLA psychologist and researcher Vickie Mays.

Brown cites Jo-Ann Eastwood, a nurse practitioner and associate professor at UCLA’s School of Nursing, who coordinated the church group study.

“I was tired of seeing women come in at 55 years old and they’ve already had a heart attack,” Eastwood said. “Their illness hadn’t been picked up early enough. That’s what drew me to this population: Where could I do the most good?”

“Eastwood taught the women about healthy-heart lifestyles and stress reduction in four diet-and-exercise classes before handing out custom-configured Android phones,” explains Brown. “The phones were loaded with an app, developed at UCLA, that interacted with the women, sending daily and weekly questions — “Did you eat five to six servings of fruit today?” — and tracking how much exercise they got via built-in accelerometers.”

Preliminary results from the study were enticing. Compared with a control group, the church women had “significant improvements in blood pressure and cholesterol levels, lower levels of anxiety and stress and improved eating and exercise habits.”

UCLA researchers reported the findings recently at an American Heart Association scientific meeting held in Chicago.

“(The project) changed things that are very important for heart disease,” Eastwood said, adding that many participants said the program had made them and their families healthier.

It’s another battle won in the war against poor health outcomes in communities that sorely need more information, more cheerleading, and — ultimately — more apps.