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Kinesiology alumnus walks to the beat

  |   Kristen B. Morales   |   Permalink   |   Spotlight

In the study of exercise science, College of Education alumnus David Rowe has found himself at the intersection of the two disciplines.

His work at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, has him not only researching how and why people want to exercise, but also finding ways to integrate these ideas with science—specifically, technology. He and his colleagues are developing smartphone apps to help motivate people to walk more often, and working with digital music experts to change the tempo of songs to push people toward their fitness goals.

Rowe graduated with his doctorate from the kinesiology department in 1996, and began working in Glasgow in 2007. Originally from the United Kingdom, Rowe travels back to the states several times a year to present at conferences. He was invited to speak at the UGA Center for Physical Activity and Health's seminar this past December, sharing his latest work blending smartphones and exercise in the presentation, "Using Music and Mobile Technology to Promote Healthy Walking."

"Strathclyde is very much a sciences and technology university, so they're really pushing for technology to be a part of everything we're doing," he says. "I'm working with a group focusing on human-computer interaction, or HCI. We work with them to develop apps to help promote walking—it's all to do with lifestyle activities."

Walking is one of the most perfect exercises, Rowe says, because anyone can do it, and there are a lot of places in our lives where we can introduce it. The trick is to get people interested in being more healthy and integrating exercise in their daily routines. For example, moving printers out of individual offices and into a common area promotes a little more physical activity into an otherwise sedentary office schedule.

One of Rowe's more recent projects—and one he presented at UGA—is of a series of apps that help give people incentives to walk more. For some, this means walking to a favorite song, while for others it turns walking into a game, collecting points when they walk to more places.

When walking to music, Rowe says, the trick is to go at a higher beat per minute than your typical pop song. "We've developed a program that makes you go a little bit faster," he says. "If your favorite song is 'Staying Alive' by the Bee Gees, which is 100 beats per minute, and now we want you to go at 110 beats per minute, the challenge is, do you want to listen to that piece of music?"

Rowe is working with music technologists to stretch the tempo and adjust the pitch, to keep the music from getting the dreaded "chipmunk effect." Most commercial songs, he says, aren't in a range of tempos for use with faster walking speeds.

"The typical walking tempo can range from about 80 steps per minute, up to about 150 steps per minute," he says. "It's very difficult to find tunes that are 130 or 140, or below 100—and if you do, they are often melodic tunes."

Rowe's work also introduces the idea of incentivizing walking while listening to music. For example, what happens when you're walking along, listening to your favorite song, but you're starting to slow your pace? By combining your smartphone's GPS with the data collected by the app, Rowe says, the app "BeatClearWalker" can tell you're not walking as quick as you should, and it introduces a little "pink noise" over your song.

You speed up, and it goes away. You slow down again, and the annoying noise comes back.

Another app, "Walk2Build," uses gaming theory. Using a similar concept as "SimCity," users collect points for walking certain distances, which translate into things they can "buy" for their virtual city. "You're rewarded for your distance and speed. So if you walk above a certain speed for a certain time, that might qualify you for a lake or a tree."

The next steps, Rowe says, are linking mobile phones with computers and wearable technology. Something like a Fitbit can communicate with your phone, which processes the information. The developers have also moved to the Android platform, with gives them more flexibility compared to the process of getting developer licenses and approval for Apple-based apps.

Rowe admits that when he arrived in Scotland, he never saw his physical fitness expertise merging with the latest technology. But he's enjoying the challenge of using technology like smartphones to keep people motivated to move more and stay healthy.

"It's moving at an exponential speed," he says, adding that he's also working on international collaborations with this technology, including several possibilities at UGA. "I love the positivity here, particularly at universities. I'm trying to build up a couple of collaborative projects. So I'll be back in the spring, and it's a good excuse to come back to the States."

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