Movement as Medicine, with an AI Assist

Exercise may be an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, but convincing patients to get moving remains a challenge. Here are a few digital tools worth considering.

By John Halamka, M.D., President, Mayo Clinic Platform, and Paul Cerrato, senior research analyst and communications specialist, Mayo Clinic Platform.

With so much attention focused on generative AI and digital solutions to manage life-threatening disorders, it’s easy to overlook some of the simpler things, like the value of exercise and nutrition in preventing and treating disease. Numerous studies have shown that physical movement can help relieve the symptoms of arthritis and Parkinson’s disease, alleviate mental depression, and reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. And researchers have found that the benefits don’t necessarily require patients to work up a sweat through vigorous exercise programs or spend hours a day at their local gym. The challenge, however, is finding ways to get patients enthusiastic enough about physical activity to get engaged. As Newton’s First Law of Motion points out: a body at rest will remain at rest unless an outside force acts on it. Overcoming this inertia can be especially difficult for patients who have spent years leading a sedentary lifestyle.

Matthew Ladwig, a Professor of integrative human health at Purdue University Northwest, points out that once children enter adolescence, playful games involving physical activity are often replaced by competitive sports, and then the fun disappears. To bring the enjoyment back, Darryl Edwards, who created an exercise program called Primary Play Method, says “the key to rediscovering the fun of exercise is to tap into memories from before exercise became a chore…. Mr. Edwards began incorporating play into his workouts and has his clients climbing trees, balancing on railings, and crawling on all fours instead of going to the gym. Eventually he developed a workout aimed at building strength and endurance through childlike play.”

While this approach may appeal to some healthy adults, many patients with chronic, debilitating disorders may need to go in a different direction. Fitbit-like devices are one option. Typically, they use a 3-axis accelerometer to measure the number of steps a person takes. They can also monitor calories expended, distance traveled, and the like. But many older chronically ill patients may be disinclined to go that way.

Other options include a variety of Internet of Things tools that encourage patients to adhere to exercise regimens. Programs are available for patients with osteoarthritis, for example, that combine video-based instructions on how to do exercises, automated reminders to patients to encourage adherence to the regimen, and progress monitoring. Hasan et al. discuss the potential role of AI by stating it can assist "in keeping a digital record of the patients' issues and supports them through apps to enhance adherence to the exercises that patients typically avoid for various reasons, including a lack of time, an increased workload, and mood issues.”

Of course, elderly patients must contend with several other issues, many of which draw their attention away from exercise. Fortunately, AI can play a role in addressing these concerns, as well. Chuanrul Chen, with the University of California, San Diego, and associates provide a detailed list of these digital tools, including the Oura ring, which contains sensors to measure skin temperature, respiration rate, blood oxygen, heart rate and more; Phillips VitalPatch, which monitors several vital signs and physical activity; and smart socks, which can track a patient’s gait, balance, and foot problems.

Physical activity needn’t be an unpleasant chore for your patients. With the right mindset and a few Internet of Things devices, it can actually be fun.

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