A majority of American workers spend most of their day sitting and don't get enough exercise, putting them at risk for a variety of chronic diseases ranging from diabetes to cancer. A team of researchers at the University of Iowa has one potential solution: Turn everyday exercise into a game.

To that end, UI faculty and students designed a web-based game that can be played by anyone with a smartphone and a Fitbit. Those results were published this month in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

The game, called MapTrek, was designed by the Computational Epidemiology Research (CompEpi) Group, a collaborative group of students and faculty in the UI computer science, internal medicine, and HHP departments, Polgreen says. The project would not have been possible without the contributions from professors James Cremer and Alberto Segre in the Department of Computer Science, Polgreen adds.

Polgreen says his research involves developing new approaches to monitoring diseases. Recently, that research extended to designing interventions. MapTrek is an example of such an intervention.

"Our results suggested that goal-setting alone was not enough," Polgreen says. "So, we decided to design a game with challenges and to make the game social: the result is MapTrek."

Here's how MapTrek works: Users sync data from accelerometers–in the case of this study, Fitbits–with the web-based MapTrek game. Using Google Maps, MapTrek then moves a virtual avatar along a map in proportion to the number of steps the participant takes. Participants of the study were grouped together and competed against one another in weekly walking challenges each week.

For the study, 146 participants–sedentary office workers, ages 21-65 who reported sitting at least 75% of their workday–were divided into two groups. Both were given Fitbits, but only one group used their Fitbit along with the MapTrek game. Their activity levels were monitored with the Fitbit's activity monitor.

Carr says Fitbits were chosen because they're common and their data was accessible. While they are exploring using other fitness monitors, Carr says MapTrek currently only works with a Fitbit. Fitbit did not contribute to the study.

Fitbit and MapTrek group

During the 10-week study, the researchers found that the Fitbit and MapTrek group walked 2,092 more steps per day and completed 11 more active minutes per day compared with the Fitbit-only group. Active minutes are defined as those in which the participant took more than 100 steps.

"If a person can maintain a daily 2,000-step increase, that could result in a clinically significant improvement in their overall health," Carr says. "It's associated with about a 10 percent relative reduction in the long-term incidence of cardiovascular disease."

Ultimately, the Fitbit and MapTrek group did not maintain the spike in overall activity throughout the 10-week study. Though the Fitbit and MapTrek users regressed, they were still averaging more steps than the Fitbit-only group by the end of the study. Ultimately, the MapTrek group returned to their pre-study fitness levels, Carr says.

Polgreen noted that MapTrek, based on the CompEpi group's original work with subjects at high risk for diabetes, is now also being used as part of a National Institutes of Health-funded study to test its effectiveness within that population. Current MapTrek development is focused on making the game even more engaging and interactive.

Carr says more research will be done on sedentary office workers, but they're also looking at clinical populations, including cardiac rehab patients and those suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.