University of Saskatchewan

September 01, 2014   

Tackling Obesity with Computer Apps

Rita Orji combines computers with psychology to help combat obesity and encourage healthy living. (Photo credit: Scott Bell for the U of S)
August 03, 2011

By Stephen Prestley

Imagine an app for your smart phone or Facebook page that helps you make healthy decisions about what to eat at a restaurant so that you can control your weight, manage your diabetes, or build muscle.

This is the first of several novel computer applications that will be developed by Rita Orji, a University of Saskatchewan PhD computer science student. They all focus on promoting healthy eating and address Canada’s obesity epidemic.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that Orji was among 167 students awarded a prestigious $150,000 Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship through the federal science research granting agency NSERC. She was ranked in the top five in Canada.

While technology has made life easier, it has also confined many people to their desks, resulting in serious health problems such as obesity. Six out of 10 Canadian adults and three out of 10 teens are either overweight or obese, according to Statistics Canada.

To combat this problem, Orji is developing new technology that uses smart phones, computers, games, and social media to motivate and engage users to live healthily.

“I’m interested in technologies to help people live healthier,” says Orji, who was born in Nigeria and came to the U of S from Turkey last year. “Obesity is one of the major focuses of my research because it impacts so many people around the world.”

The Vanier scholarships, based on both high academic achievement and leadership skills, bring world-class doctoral students to Canadian universities. Orji has led programs for women in Nigeria and Turkey and continues to be a leader by providing a positive female role model in a male-dominated discipline.

Her supervisors, Regan Mandryk and Julita Vassileva, have complementary expertise. Mandryk focuses on “persuasive” technologies that aim to improve fitness and health while Vassileva focuses on online communities and motivating people to participate in them.

“What is unique about Rita’s research is that she uses knowledge from psychology about what motivates people to make lifestyle changes and employs this knowledge in the design of her computer apps so that they’re based not just on how technology works but on how people work,” says Mandryk.

“You don’t see a big change immediately from making a small decision such as choosing low-fat salad dressing or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. But build those up over time and after six months you will see a difference. We are using technology to bridge that gap.”

One example is Orji’s game, LunchTime, which creates a virtual restaurant where users are encouraged to make meal choices that advance their individual health goals. The users compete with friends.

“Your friends have the power to influence your choices,” says Orji. “We believe that this social component will make this game very successful and will result in behavioural change.”

She plans to take what she has learned from the game and apply it to other potentially marketable computer programs that will promote healthier lifestyles.

Mandryk is currently working with a company to develop a fitness game that incorporates work done by one of her students from a couple of years ago.

Orji hopes these apps will reduce the number of overweight and obese individuals and minimize government spending on related health problems.

“Hopefully my research will be used by people to improve their health,” she says. “The results can help guide companies, technology designers, and future researchers, across Canada and globally.”

Stephen Prestley is a graduate student intern in the U of S Office of Research Communications.

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For more stories of student research at the U of S, visit the Young Innovators page here.

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