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Prioritising future areas of digital health research into the promotion of physical activity

By Carmen E Lefevre, on 17 November 2016

By: Elpiniki Laiou, Postgraduate Researcher at the Department of Hygiene and Epidemiology of the University of Ioannina Medical School, Greece

Strong evidence shows that physical inactivity is related to many adverse health conditions, leading to shortened life expectancy.1 The widespread diffusion of mobile and Internet technologies make them potentially useful tools for promoting health and tackling physical inactivity, however, further research is needed to understand which technological components and features are likely to result in effective behaviour change interventions.2

The EC DG Research and Innovation invited five FP7 and Horizon 2020 research projects on health enhancing physical activity (PA) to share their experience with other stakeholders, to discuss how to enhance PA, to share best practices and to draw recommendations for policy makers. A workshop was organised by the research project teams themselves (CREDITS4HEALTH, EuroFIT, PASTA, REPOPA, SiTLESS), in collaboration with EC services.  The project teams worked together organizing sessions to explore common themes and to learn from one another, enhancing their own knowledge with insights from their peers.

The CREDITS4HEALTH session aimed to engage the participating PA researchers in identifying and prioritising future areas of research into the promotion of PA.  A five-minute pictorial presentation of current behavioural science knowledge stemming from systematic reviews and meta-analyses of PA behavioural interventions was given to participants as a starting point for discussion.  The presentation was followed by a brainstorming exercise, generating proposed research ideas that were grouped into research themes.  Each participant was then asked to prioritise the proposed research themes they would most like to invest in by allocating a finite budget of points.  Research investment points could be assigned all in one research theme or broken down to multiple themes.

The opening presentation identified a need for further research in the areas of social and psychological mechanisms of motivation and the contexts that are most responsible for changing sedentary behaviours (SB).  For example, there have been calls for further attention to interventions targeting SB and identifying the most effective corresponding behaviour change techniques (BCTs)3.  Furthermore, the ability of online applications such as social media to produce meaningful change in physical activity appears to remain unclear.

The CREDITS4HEALTH session was attended by 11 workshop participants.  The subsequent brainstorming exercise resulted in 41 research ideas that were grouped into 8 research themes and prioritized as follows:

  1. Inequality: Interventions for the most disadvantaged
  2. Cross-Discipline Working: Using mixed methods and multi-disciplinary work
  3. Multiple Level Interventions: Acting on across environment, cognitive behaviour change, and incentives
  4. Understanding (In)activity: Understanding the psychological components of inactivity
  5. Learning from Others: Informing PA interventions from other disciplines and contexts
  6. Personalised Interventions: Tailoring the use of BCTs to individual psychological profiles
  7. Integrating Technical Knowledge: What can technology help us to achieve?
  8. Capturing Research Data: Designing more visual interfaces for research and interventions

Based on the proposed research themes, there appears to be a need for creating more diverse research consortia, seeking to develop a deeper understanding of physical inactivity and multi-disciplinary approaches and to tackle inequality through multi-level interventions. Digital Health approaches to PA promotion might benefit from similar stakeholder engagement exercises and from the formation of multi-discipline consortia, seeking to address inequality and physical inactivity as part of multi-level interventions.


BIO: Elpiniki Laiou is a Postgraduate Researcher at the Department of Hygiene and Epidemiology of the University of Ioannina Medical School, Greece.  She holds a PhD in Public Health and an MSc in Occupational Health from the University of Birmingham, UK.  Her current work involves providing methodological support and conducting research synthesis for the EC funded project CREDITS4HEALTH. The main goal of the project has been to develop an evidence-based, person-centric approach based on finding the optimal incentive scheme to support people living in Euro-Mediterranean Countries in reducing sedentary behavior and enhance their level of physical activity and healthy dietary styles through an ICT platform.  CREDITS4HEALTH has received funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement n° 602386.   



  1. de Rezende LF, Rodrigues Lopes M, Rey-López JP, et al. Sedentary behavior and health outcomes: an overview of systematic reviews. PLoS One. 2014 Aug 21;9(8):e105620
  2. Bardus M, Smith JR, Samaha L, et al. Mobile Phone and Web 2.0 Technologies for weight management: A systematic scoping review.  J Med Internet Res 2015; 17 (11): e259
  3. Martin A, Fitzsimons C, Jepson R, et al.  Interventions with potential to reduce sedentary time in adults: systematic review and meta-analysis.  Br J Sports Med 2015; 49 (16): 1056-63
  4. Williams G, Hamm MP, Shulhan J, et al. Social media interventions for diet and exercise behaviours: a systematic review and meta-analysis of RCTs. BMJ Open. 2014;4(2):e003926
  5. Laiou E, Ntzani E, Holmes C, Schwarzer R, Ngo J, Román-Viñas B,  Kritikou M, Tricholopoulou A, Chitano G, Vigilanza A, Cianferotti L, Brandi ML; on behalf of the Credits4Health Consortium.  Prioritising future areas of research into the promotion of physical activity. Poster presentation. 7th HEPA Europe Conference,   28-30 September 2016, Belfast, Northern Ireland

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