Beyond the Data
One researcher’s quest to improve student health
achary Pope, a trim 25-year old with a warm smile, is worried about the health of his generation.
As a second-year doctoral student in the School of Kinesiology, Pope is a self-described optimist. “But,” he says, “if we don’t change the way we look at health, physical activity and nutrition, we’re going to be in a very dire place, nationwide.”
For many students, he explains, the college years represent the first time they’re making completely autonomous decisions about their personal health – such as whether or how often to exercise, what and when to eat, and how much to sleep.
Unfortunately, this newfound freedom – coupled with the stressors of class and work schedules, limited finances, and a new environment – often leads to poor health outcomes: A 2015 survey of nearly 17,000 undergraduates in the U.S. found that more then 50% of them don’t meet the minimum recommendations for moderate-intensity exercise; 49% are considered overweight or obese.
Using technology to self-regulate, learn and connect
Pope is trying to help motivate students to get moving and eat better by leveraging the technology that’s already a part of their daily lives.
“All of us have smartphones. There are tons of free apps available to monitor health, physical activity and weight management,” says Pope. “But there’s very little research about how effective they are.”
Funded by a 2015-2016 SHAPE America Graduate Student Research Grant, Pope is using a free, commercially available mobile application called “MapMyFitness” to study whether these types of apps, in combination with a private Facebook group wherein a health intervention is delivered, can improve self-regulation of physical activity, increase knowledge, build confidence and promote weight loss among study participants.
Health tips delivered twice weekly via the Facebook group are intended to help participants think about how they might incorporate more physical activity and healthier food choices in their lives. The Facebook group also provides a social support network – participants can comment on their own or others’ progress and share advice.
“The self-regulation aspect is really important. When people can see their progress, it’s much more motivating than just reading a pamphlet or reading tips on Facebook,” says Pope. Participants use the MapMyFitness app to track their own health behaviors, which they can share with the private Facebook group.
As the study is a randomized-controlled trial, psychosocial and physiological variables of participants using the MapMyFitness app in combination with the Facebook group will be compared to a group included only within a separate, content-identical Facebook group. Results will indicate whether the MapMyFitness app offers further benefits beyond that of an online health intervention delivered via social media.
“By influencing individual thoughts and providing social support,” explains Pope, “we hope to be able to promote positive changes. For example, the information delivered on Facebook could influence a person’s confidence in participating in physical activity. Combine that with a supportive social environment, and we hope to be able to change individual behaviors.”
“Rome wasn’t built in a day”
Pope believes one of the most critical messages to deliver to those who want to improve their health is that incremental changes eventually lead to significant outcomes. A commitment to live a healthier life doesn’t mean everything has to change instantaneously.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day. The more comfortable you can make people feel, the easier it is to promote health behavior change. We have to be careful, because being negative doesn’t work. Talking to them about little changes goes a lot farther than being oppressive,” says Pope.
People are starting to listen. One participant in the study told Pope that she was initially overwhelmed by the thought of exercising regularly. “But then she realized, ‘Hey, I don’t have to go from being on the couch to running a 5K…I can start with a walk.’”
“If we get enough people to believe this,” says Pope, “we can start to turn the tide a little bit. It’s not an all-or-nothing thing.”
Surrounded with positivity
Originally from Boise, Idaho, Pope was recruited into the Kinesiology Ph.D. program and after one visit to campus, he says, “I knew this was the place I wanted to be.” Pope explains that his colleagues in the Physical Activity Epidemiology Laboratory are like family: “It’s such a positive environment, and out of this comes the best work.”
Pope credits his advisor, Zan Gao, assistant professor of behavioral aspects of physical activity and director of the School’s Physical Activity Epidemiology Laboratory, with helping to create this atmosphere.
He describes Gao as a supportive mentor who gives Pope a lot of independence and encouragement. “He’s taught me how to be a responsible grad student and researcher. I think his disposition has carried him far – I hope that under his tutelage, I can go far, too.”
H.O.P.E. for a healthier future
When asked about what motivates him to do this kind of research, Pope explains with reference to an acronym: “H.O.P.E.”
“It’s kind of my personal motto. It stands for, ‘Help One Person Everyday.’ It keeps me focused,” says Pope. “My barometer at the end of the days is, ‘What am I doing in other people’s lives? Who am I going to help?’” Pope is so passionate about this motto, he had it tattooed down the side of his chest.
After he completes his degree, Pope says he’d either like to continue researching and teaching at a major university, or work in a medical center or medical school to help integrate technology into health care.
“Research can inherently be very focused on numbers and data and outcomes,” explains Pope. “But this motto helps me remember that the real reason for doing this is about people, not publications or ego. It helps keep me focused. Life is about people and nothing else.”
 American College Health Association. American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II: Undergraduate Students Reference Group Data Report Fall 2015. Hanover, MD: American College Health Association; 2016.