Spotlight on a Researcher: Alexander Biel

Alex Biel is pursuing graduate education in Obesity Prevention and Management at Arizona State University. As part of his master’s thesis in Eric Hekler’s Designing Health Lab, he created ‘Pokemon Go: A Socio-Technical Exploratory Study’. The aim of this pilot study was to gain a better understanding of how games might influence physical activity.

You can join Alex’s study on Open Humans! The Designing Health Lab might have funding for another round. If it does, Alex will get in touch with you.

I spoke with Alex last week.alex_biel_improved

Hope: What do you think are the most glaring mistakes that society makes regarding obesity prevention and management?

Alex: Our entire environment is pretty great at making us fail to be active. I also think the media does a crappy job of showing what’s realistic. That can be discouraging — it was for me. But we have enough information now on the consequences our built environment have, so we should rethink how we’re doing things. It’s time for us as a society to pivot and come up with healthier strategies. The obesity epidemic didn’t happen because of personal failures.

Hope: Why did you want to study people playing Pokemon Go?

Alex: I wanted to look at whether Pokemon Go impacts physical activity. Since Pokemon Go inadvertently prompted people to walk more, it provided a unique opportunity for research to understand how this game, and other games more generally, can be used for fostering physical activity. Also, it’s considered one of the top games ever in terms of initial downloads.

Hope: What was most challenging about the Pokemon study? What was most interesting?

Alex: I heard from others in the lab that recruitment is difficult.  I didn’t really understand this until I worked on finding people myself. My recruitment strategy wasn’t as fluid as I would have liked. I just walked up to 500-600 random students on the ASU campus and asked them if they play Pokemon Go.

I got ethics board approval on October 1st and the first run of the study was done in less than a month. That’s an incredibly quick turnaround that was made possible partially because of all of the great infrastructure that Open Humans provides.  It allowed me to learn some interesting points, such as what seems to be driving gameplay, relatively quickly.

Hope: Is this the first research study that you designed? If not, what else have you worked on?

Alex: This was my first study. Thankfully, Open Humans made it a lot easier than I expected to get started. It gave me the information about steps, which was my main outcome variable,become easily available via their connection with Health Kit.

Hope: Can you describe what gamification is and how it relates to your research?

Alex: Gamification is using game thinking and game mechanics to solve problems and engage users. In this study, my goal was to explore if PokeMon Go appears to influence steps taken per day (spoiler alert, so far it looks like a small trend, but nothing significant based on our current sample) and then to look at the game mechanics of PokeMon Go.

Going forward, I’d like to explore how to create a more efficient recruitment process. I’d also like to add more validated measures to the protocol. A couple of the questions I’d wanted to ask were excluded because they were too open-ended and there were no definitive way to analyze them.

Hope: You’re currently writing your thesis. How do you see yourself using your degree in the future?

Alex: If all goes according to plan, I will be continuing my education at ASU in Dr. Hekler’s lab. I am hoping to use my degree to specialize in designing programs catered to healthy living and healthy food choices. Dr. Hekler has a couple awesome studies that are currently being reviewed, so I am hoping to dive into one of those just as soon as they get approved. *fingers crossed*

Hope: Besides being a graduate student, you’re also a certified personal trainer. What piece of advice have you repeated most often when working with clients?

Alex: One of my old professors said, “Eat less, move more.” I really think that’s the best advice. I’m a huge advocate for developing a healthy lifestyle. I lost 60 pounds by trial and error. When you put immediate gratification aside, anything is possible. It’s hard to change, but doable — especially if you have the right motivation. Find something that gets you psyched and channel that to find better ways to cope. I think a lot of people who claim to be healthy don’t have very healthy coping behaviors.

Hope: Do you do any personal health-tracking on a regular basis? If so, what have you found most helpful about the data you’ve collected?

Alex: Not really. I’ve used them in the past. Theoretically, health trackers are awesome. But I think they’re a way better tool to get people started on a healthier lifestyle than they are to get people to sustain that lifestyle. They’re more like a wake up call. The first time you use one, you think, “That’s all I’m moving?!” People are bad at guessing how much they move. Using a tracker makes you more realistic about your own behaviors, but it’s not necessarily going to get you to change your habits. For instance, I know I don’t walk a lot – I don’t need a tracker to tell me that. So I try to make up for that by standing and stretching as much as possible. I believe that if you’re not getting one thing, then try to balance it out by doing something else.

Hope: What health-tracking technology do you wish existed?

Alex: There’s only so much you can do with the information given to you by the current trackers. Say I’ve walked 7,000 steps today. I don’t know how that’s impacting me. It would be cool to have a one-stop shop that tracks food quantities, health behaviors, and physical activities. I’m optimistic that this will happen one day, but right now you have to be really dedicated to make use of trackers. Plus, most devices and techniques are not that accurate. Even the calories on the back of a box of food are only as accurate as the FDA requires.

Hope: According to your LinkedIn profile, your interests are fitness, coffee, reading, learning, and writing. Is coffee the fuel that sustains your other interests?

Alex: Pretty much.. A nice cup of coffee is my reward for doing the things that I should be doing.

Want to join Alex’s study?
You can join on Open Humans!
The Designing Health Lab might have funding for another round. If it does, Alex will get in touch with you.

Want to get in touch with Alex?
Reach out to him through his Member Profile or LinkedIn

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