Finding the Path With Technology

The relationship between obesity prevention and technology has been developing for years, and has branched off in many directions. An interesting multi-author paper originating from Spain, Mexico, and Costa Rica, published in 2018, included input not only from technicians but from nutritionists and specialists in physical activity.

It laid out interesting general precepts to explain the reasoning behind many of the choices made in developing a system to promote healthy behaviors relating to childhood obesity. For instance,

The amount of notifications received in a mobile phone is now unmanageable for users. Therefore, we believe that combining mobile applications with pervasive computing through smart devices could have more impact in the people and enhance their user experience.

By smart devices we mean: instruments, equipment or machines that have their own computational capacity. These electronic devices are connected to a network and interact autonomously with other devices and users.

The researchers concentrated on figuring out what works for families with children aged between six and 12 years, because (as has become very obvious) early prevention of obesity is key. Younger children are more impressionable than older ones, so the sooner, the better.

One guiding principle the developers kept in mind is that “visual recognition memory is superior to auditory recognition memory.” Another is, “A system is suitable for learning when it supports and guides the user in learning to use the system.”

Peaks and valleys

There is a quality called “effectiveness decay” which has to do with how much efficacy is lost over time, and at what steps in a process the loss kicks in. A health intervention in the form of a memory aid might work quite well for a while. If a device asks its owner, “Did you floss your teeth today?,” the results might be quite productive at the start, then tend to fall off over time. The point may come where the reminder elicits only a jaded response like “Yeah, leave me alone, I’ll get to it.”

Reminders from devices are “useful when they refer to the target behavior and the situation in which it needs to be executed,” but their power to influence behavior will almost inevitably fade. Yet the authors are optimistic:

Even though the effectiveness and relevance of reminders decrease with time, reminders keep people engaged and help them to repeat the behavior, and in some cases, could support the start of the new habit, as the new behavior might develop faster than the decay of effectiveness of the reminder.

This team found that, although more than 85 different smart devices existed at the time, none quite encompassed the abilities they looked for, so part of the mission was to develop their own satisfactory device that would include, at the least, a physical activity tracker, central database, notification generator, and notification dispatcher

The system they developed was described as using different technologies “including low-cost microcontrollers, sensors and simple actuators to deliver information to the users, a NoSQL database to model people and devices into the system, and a lightweight messaging protocol to allow the devices to work with low processing capabilities consuming small amounts of energy.”

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Smart Device-Based Notifications to Promote Healthy Behavior Related to Childhood Obesity and Overweight,”, 01/18
Image by Tomizak/CC BY-ND 2.0

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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