NIH study tracks exercise with mobile apps to improve heart health

D.C. resident Deborah Nix, left, helps lead a walking program with NIH.

Last updated on August 6th, 2021 at 12:06 pm

Tiffany Powell-Wiley, M.D., M.P.H., is passionate about making physical activity and heart health a priority in U.S. communities.Tiffany Powell-Wiley, M.D., M.P.H., is dedicated to making Americans healthier.

She focuses on research related to heart health and the conditions that go with it. Those include obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

In 2013, Dr. Powell-Wiley and her team started research on how to lower rates of these chronic conditions among African Americans and the racial and ethnic disparities that often go along with the conditions.

The studies are located in several Washington, D.C., communities, where data from the D.C. Department of Health indicates that obesity rates are high among African Americans.

“We work with community members to design and carry out our studies,” Dr. Powell-Wiley said.

The research is part of the Washington, D.C. Cardiovascular (CV) Health and Needs Assessment, a study that Dr. Powell-Wiley’s team leads. So far, 153 community members have participated in the Health and Needs Assessment.

Tracking health

One goal of the study is to understand how mobile health technology can help people better track their nutrition and exercise.

In the beginning of the study, participants used a physical activity monitoring wristband and mobile apps on their phones to track their exercise over 30 days. At the end of each week, they connected their wristbands to computers to upload data to Dr. Powell-Wiley’s team at NIH.  

More than 80 percent of study participants used the wristbands over the full 30 days.

“This was one of the first studies to show the feasibility of wearable mobile health technology in a population most impacted by health disparities,” Dr. Powell-Wiley said.

Community barriers to health

Dr. Powell-Wiley adds that areas with lower income levels, like the ones she works with in D.C., can often have fewer resources. That means a lack of healthy food and grocery store options, parks, or recreation centers.

“Even when those resources are available, you may be limited in using them because of the perceived safety in the community,” she says.

Rural areas also pose challenges. They may not have sidewalks for walking or places to exercise.

Her team hopes that by using mobile apps, people in these communities can get the support they need—in their own neighborhoods.

“We want to take some of the tools we’re developing—at least the mobile apps—to see if they’re effective in promoting heart health and then tailor these to other parts of the country,” she said.

Using the new guidelines

For those interested in improving their heart and overall health, Dr. Powell-Wiley says the new physical activity guidelines are a good place to start. They can help you understand how much exercise is right for you. But she says it’s OK to start slowly.

“Even if you aren’t doing any exercise right now, you can still start with some sort of activity and ramp up as you’re able,” she says. “You don’t have to run marathons. Find what works for you and try to do that.”

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities support Dr. Powell-Wiley’s research.

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