Curtin University researchers have developed a new obesity prevention app that shows users how they will look in future if their diet and exercise habits do not change.
The app, which is currently in the commercial development stage, was created by the same team which previously demonstrated that using face-ageing software to show people how smoking aged their appearance motivated one in seven smokers to quit.
“I spend a lot of my life as a doctor saying ‘Change your lifestyle because of the risk of heart disease or cancer’, but none of it makes an impression. I might get one in 20 smokers to stop by badgering them about their health. But if you ask young people what matters to them, it’s the threat to their appearance,” said Moyez Jiwa, Professor of Health Innovation at Curtin University and lead researcher behind the new anti-obesity app.
The new app, called Future Me, asks users to upload a current photo of themselves and input relevant data such as height, weight and body shape.
“It creates an avatar that looks like you and even waves to you. Then you tell it, ‘In the next little while, I am going to eat so many calories and do so much exercise, so tell me what I will look like in four weeks, eight weeks, 12 weeks, 26 weeks or a year’,” said Professor Jiwa.
“You don’t change much within four to eight weeks but within 12 weeks you see a difference. That is interesting because most people give up on diets after four weeks.”
Users will also be able to see how interventions such as diet changes and exercise would change their future appearance.
Professor Jiwa said an Australian New Zealand Clinical Trials Registry registered trial in which GPs would ‘prescribe’ the app to their patients was expected to yield results within three months. The aim was to have the app commercially available by Christmas, he said.
“We don’t say that fatness is ugly. We say, ‘You take a look and decide if you are comfortable with that particular future’,” said Professor Jiwa.
“We have the evidence from the smoking study that this kind of innovation certainly helps to motivate people,” said Professor Jiwa.
“Some public health professionals believe that the answer to preventing obesity is to tax high calorie foods more than fresh foods and that would be more effective. Our answer to that is, yes, that’s fine but we also need something that targets the individual and tailors the message for that person.”
However, Adrian Bauman, Professor of Public Health at University of Sydney said people already know that overeating leads to obesity.
“In my view, structural change and policies, as we achieved with tobacco control in terms of restricting environments where people could smoke, and plain packaging, are needed to complement individual advice,” said Professor Bauman, who was not involved in the Future Me project.
“Without an integrated and resourced policy response to obesity, all the clever apps in the world will do no more than the fad diets did in the 1980s and 1990s.”
However, Professor Jiwa said that the app was not intended as a stand alone intervention.
“It is true that public health messages are targeted at the public at large. However if these messages were effective then why is the rate of obesity continuing to rise almost unabated? Why is the age of onset of type two diabetes getting younger by the day? What can we do to support the army of primary health care practitioners, including GPs and pharmacists, to more effectively relay healthy life style choices?” he said.
Professor Jiwa said that “80% of the population have smart phone. They all access technology to do all sorts of other things.”
Professor Jiwa will discuss the new anti-obesity app as part of a public lecture on innovations in public health, to be held as part of National Science Week this Thursday August 15 6pm, at Bankwest Lecture Theatre, Curtin University’s Bentley Campus.