The fourth paper in The Lancet Series on physical activity reported on a new simulation model that explains how information and communication technologies, particularly mobile phones, could be a powerful way to encourage millions of people worldwide to become more physically active.

Michael Pratt, leading researcher and from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA, said:

“The findings indicate that the potential effects of web and mobile phone technology are roughly the same size as the average effects of targeted physical activity interventions, suggesting that the greatest potential to increase population level physical activity might be through the creation of supportive policies outside the realms of health in sectors such as communication.”

Text messaging is undoubtedly one of the best delivery mechanisms for interventions to promote exercise because of its enormous amount of 4 billion users worldwide. With so many people text messaging, especially in less affluent and less healthy populations at high risk for physical inactivity, it can be an effective way to create new opportunities for inspiring behavioral change in many inactive or underactive exercisers.

In order to project the likely effects of global megatrends, which are major influences in society that are likely to shape people’s lives during the next 10-15 years, in cell phones, the internet, and car ownership on physical activity levels in low, middle, and high income countries, Pratt and his team developed simulation models.

The team estimated that the internet-based intervention on physical activity would have double the positive effect on middle-income countries than high-income (3.44 min vs 1.46 min per week), which was attributable to middle-income countries being responsible for a larger proportion (71%) of the global population.

The potential impact weighted by income country population distribution of mobile phone interventions on physical activity are also estimated to be much larger in middle-income countries (7.91 min vs. 2.27 min per week) because the access to cell phones is similar in middle and high income countries.

Pratt concluded:

“With the high prevalence of both physical inactivity and the rapid growth of the mobile phone sector in low-income and middle-income countries, there is the potential for population-level effects that could truly affect global health.

Technology-based physical activity interventions and policies are unlikely to be optimized when 90% of the evidence and experience comes from high-income countries, while 84% of the world lives in the very different context of low-income and middle-income countries. If we are to truly take advantage of promising technologies and intervention strategies we must build the research and public health practice capacity required to effectively deploy and evaluate these strategies in low and middle income countries. This is a big challenge, but marked progress in countries such as Colombia and Brazil suggests that it is also an achievable challenge.”

Written by Sarah Glynn