Associate Professor Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn, left, helps nine-year-old Maddie Lacey of Watkinsville, Ga., interact with the virtual buddy fitness kiosk in the Games and Virtual Environments Lab at Grady College, while Maddie’s mother, Cara Lacey, looks on. Photos: Andrew Davis Tucker
Grace Ahn of Grady faculty leads $3.3 million grant award
Creating sustainable habits to increase physical activity and improve health is a goal many people share.
Now, thanks in part to a $3.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, researchers at the University of Georgia are using virtual reality to help children develop a more active lifestyle.
“The Virtual Fitness Buddy Ecosystem: Using Digital Technology to Promote and Sustain Moderate-to Vigorous Intensive Physical Activity in Children,” will fund a five-year program through the after-school program sponsored by the Metro Atlanta YMCA. Children ages 6- to 10-years-old will participate with their parents in the program.
“With this grant, we will try to encourage kids to exercise more, learn how to communicate with their parents regarding the exercise, and maintain and sustain a level of physical activity that they experience after school,” said Sun Joo “Grace” Ahn, associate professor of advertising UGA’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication and principal investigator for the study.
Each child participating in the study will wear a personal fitness tracker, like a Fitbit, and set personal physical fitness goals. A virtual buddy kiosk will automatically detect each child’s physical activity status and send real-time updates to parents via text messages, even when they are not with the children.
One of the keys to the program will be social support from the parents. Every time the child participates in physical activity, the virtual buddy kiosk will send a text message to the parents notifying them of the activity. They can, in turn, send a message back to the child encouraging them and motivating them to maintain the activity. Parents can also closely monitor the child’s physical activity progress over time through a password-protected website specially created for the project.
Once the physical activity goals have been reached, children will be able to interact with a personalized virtual pet to as a reward. Using these everyday communication devices, the virtual pet, children and parents will be able to interact seamlessly together to create a robust ecosystem of support so that children can integrate physical activity into their daily lives.
Ahn says a lot of parents want to be involved with their child’s activity level and have good intentions of doing so, but don’t have the resources available to them while they work.
“We are presenting an intervention that allows them to be involved and that allows their children to be involved,” said Ahn. “We see a lot of excitement and willingness to take part in this.”
Ahn predicts that by harnessing the power of technology to connect people and devices, physical activity among children will increase, and will be maintained over extended periods of time.
“Dr. Ahn’s work explores issues critical to the health and vitality of American children, using the very latest in digital technology,” said Charles N. Davis, dean of Grady College. “Her research really represents Grady’s depth in emerging media technologies that can be used to address so many different issues of vital importance to citizens.”
Several successful pilot studies have already been conducted over a three-day time period to test the feasibility of bringing virtual reality to children of this age group. This grant allows the study to become much larger and increase the trial period to three months and include 720 children and their parents.
“With an innovative and multidisciplinary approach, Dr. Ahn and her colleagues are working to help young people lead healthier and more active lives,” said Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Pamela Whitten. “They exemplify how the breadth of the expertise at the University of Georgia makes this institution uniquely positioned to address some of the most important challenges facing our state and world.”
When the study is complete, a three-month, six-month and 12-month follow up will be conducted to see if the physical activity levels were sustained. Self-reports of data evaluating the continued interaction between the parents and children will be recorded, along with physical activity levels as read by the personal fitness trackers. Results will be compared with a control group that will have the physical fitness trackers, but not the virtual buddy kiosk nor the parental interaction.
In addition to the benefits of increased physical activity among children and increased involvement with the parents, Ahn said the program has the potential to reduce labor costs with traditional methods of hiring and training personnel who work as physical coaches.
Five other researchers at UGA are working on this grant, including Kyle Johnsen, associate professor of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the College of Engineering; Michael Schmidt, associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology in the College of Education; Stephen Rathbun, professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in College of Public Health; Leann Birch, the William P. “Bill” Flatt Childhood Obesity Professor in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences; and Margaret O’Brien Caughy, the Georgia Athletic Association Professor in Family Health Disparities in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences.
Why did you choose to study Journalism? I chose to study journalism because I want to create content that people will connect and engage with. How did it feel to be recognized as a 2019 McGill Fellow? It was an amazing feeling being recognized as a McGill Fellow. I couldn’t have gotten to that […] learn more
Nominate Grady alumni for annual alumni awards
Nominate deserving alumni for Grady College alumni awards. Deadline for nominations is January 2, 2020. Completion the online nomination form here. For demonstrated excellence throughout their distinguished careers, each year Grady College graduates are selected as Alumni Award recipients. Named after the late John Holliman, Grady alumnus and former CNN reporter, the John Holliman Jr. […] learn more
Travis, Lewis to address fall 2019 graduates at convocation
Grady College graduates will gather for Fall 2019 Convocation ceremonies on Thursday, Dec. 19 at the Hugh Hodgson Concert Hall. The ceremony will begin at 10 a.m. Randy Travis (ABJ ’82) will be the keynote speaker at the event. Travis is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for Fox 5 Atlanta. During his career, Travis has […] learn more
Encouraging young adults who don’t get a flu vaccination to get one: Study finds virtual reality may provide a path to increased acceptance
Using a virtual reality simulation to show how flu spreads and its impact on others could be a way to encourage more people to get a flu vaccination, according to a study by researchers at the University of Georgia and the Oak Ridge Associated Universities in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. This is the first published study […] learn more
Cox Institute Releases eBook Compilation of Interviews from The Lead Podcast
This story was originally published on the Cox Institute website. A new eBook featuring excerpts of interviews from The Lead podcast is available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. The eBook entitled News Leadership: Conversations about Journalism and its Future was released this month as a project of the Grady College’s James M. Cox Jr. Institute for […] learn more