Can Digital Media Move Teens Off the Couch?

This is a guest post by Maibe Ponet, Senior Director of Digital Fitness Innovation at the YMCA for Greater New York
We wanted to take a moment to share our impressions of how digital media and technology are (or are not) being used to reverse physical inactivity among youth—this after having had the great opportunity of participating in the 2013 Partnership for a Healthier America’s (PHA) “Building a Healthier Future” summit in Washington, DC.  PHA is a timely and important initiative supported by First Lady Michelle Obama that brings together government, private and non-profit organizations to discuss strategies to combat America’s obesity crisis. We were invited to speak about Y-MVP.


Technical aspects of Y-MVP were tested in December 2012 at the Bedford-Stuyvesant Y. Starting on April 27, the program will be piloted at Bed-Stuy and Harlem Ys.

A quick refresher on our project: Y-MVP is an NYC YMCA initiative that aims to inspire the teens we serve to engage in Moderate to Vigorous Physical activity during after school hours, which is when they attend our youth programs. Y-MVP is essentially a customized iPad application being developed by Learning Times on their BadgeStack system, with input from the Institute of Play in the conceptualizing of planning and recording functions. The app, available via an interactive kiosk, uses game design, social media, virtual badges, and tangible rewards to incentivize teens to plan and track their workout, all while learning fitness concepts. The theory, as you may know or infer, is that by using innovative learning methods and by validating achievements and skills we can foster long-lasting behavioral changes.
What we observed at the PHA Summit, is that digital media is a fertile but uncharted terrain when it comes to its use in motivating real life physical activity among youth. You may be thinking now about the thousands of fitness apps in iTunes waiting for a download, or about inventive tools such as the Nike+ FuelBand or Wii Fitness. Those solutions are built for the intentional user—mostly Y and X generation adults like myself who every week set Monday as the starting date for a new this-time-I’ll-stick-to-it exercise routine. Unlike commercial fitness apps, Y-MVP is carefully tailored after the realities of Y branches and the needs of the young New Yorkers we strive to help –that is, 13-17 year-olds from low-income minority communities (with high rates of overweight and obesity) who take advantage of our free youth development programs, but are not exercising enough.
Our guiding question is: How can digital media help our traditional youth programs in moving (quite literally) teens who are not that particularly inclined to follow an exercise routine?
In the summit’s only session dedicated to digital innovations to promote wellness, the Y-MVP presentation was delivered by fellow Hiver Lori Rose Benson, our Vice-President for Healthy Lifestyles, and Learning Times founder and Credly CEO, Jonathan Finkelstein. We were excited to share our app prototype and thinking behind the Y-MVP model. We were one of two presentations in the session, the other presentation by My Healthy World, Inc., a health and wellness school curriculum built around an app.
We were quite happy and encouraged by the interest and questions about Y-MVP (and by so many great initiatives sprouting around the nation to achieve healthier lifestyles), but admittedly surprised by the otherwise limited discussion at PHA on the use of digital media to fight passive lifestyles and, more specifically, the teen physical inactivity problem. That may be in part because most of us in the obesity fight have, for many good reasons, focused on younger children and adults, with teens –who are already experienced users of gamified solutions, social media and other potential tools— often overlooked. There is growing evidence, though, that physical activity declines significantly by the age of 12, just when they need the serotonin to manage the stress of adolescence. We also know that physical inactivity patterns developed during those years persist into adulthood.
In general terms, the limited attention to digital media and games as vehicles for stimulating young people’s physical activity likely also helps explain the paucity of data on its effectiveness in this field –data which is important for persuading funders.  That is certainly changing with initiatives like Zamzee, and Get Up, both emerging from academic shops.

Badge Up, Power Up. That’s our motto. Y-MVP recognizes participants’ fitness achievements with different badges that can be shared on social media sites.

While data is important, and we hope to have some to share from Y-MVP by the end of the summer, there is a lot about educating our millennial teens that we already know intuitively or have learned from the digital learning field, including an evident ability to acquire motivation and skills from non-traditional sources beyond school and family. Does that sound familiar to you, Hivers? Yes, we believe that we can apply some of the principles behind Mozilla, Peer 2 Peer University and MacArthur Foundation’s Open Badges for Lifelong Learning research to the field of teen fitness education, without neglecting the fact that teaching real-life fitness habits requires real-life orientation, support and quality programming.
Although games and media were rather absent from summit discussions, interestingly, two of the three finalists of the competitive PHA’s End Childhood Obesity Innovation Challenge were a video game that teaches kids about healthy habits, and an online community that incentivizes young people to live healthier lives. Now college students, the creators of JiveHealth and Aurri Health Network were in their teens when they developed their ideas. The video game won the first prize.
The PHA summit reminded us that, in physical activity too, we ought to pay attention to where our young people are, and find a way to meet them there.

2 responses

  1. Zamzee Blog wrote on :

    Great post! We totally agree that teens are too often ignored – right when they are forming important, lifelong habits about physical activity. Good thing there are so many exciting new initiatives using tech and gamification to help turn that trend around.

  2. Britney wrote on :

    There’s certainly a lot to learn about this subject. I love all the points you made.