Health & Fitness

What if your wearable device could stop bad habits in their tracks?

If you’re a trying-to-quit smoker or a dieter and think a gentle nudge of encouragement before you act on your next craving would help, there might soon be an app for that.

The idea is to use wearable sensors – think fitness bands – to track signals from the body before a relapse occurs, then send “preventative interventions,” like a supportive text message or a call from a coach.

Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine is part of a team that just won a $10.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, to develop wearable devices (wearables) to prevent relapses in people trying to quit smoking or avoid unhealthy eating.

Bonnie Spring, a professor of behavioral psychology at Feinberg, is part of the team of doctors from across the country. Spring said doctors have long known that quick intervention can be helpful for people trying to quit smoking or overeating. The problem is relying on self-reporting.

“We ask people to call when they are having a craving. But they don’t call. They just smoke,” Spring said.

The grant-winning team, known as the National Center of Excellence for Mobile Sensor Data-to-Knowledge – MD2K, for short – are attaching wearable sensors to people trying to quit smoking or curb eating. The sensors identify signals, like respiration, heart rates, sweat gland activity, wrist movements and location. The latter two data points might signal reaching for or lighting a cigarette, or going outside for a smoke, Spring said.

The technology is still in the testing and development phase, though some devices are being used on real test patients, she said.

Earlier efforts at intervention “were developed by professors, and it shows. They are very rational, burdensome, and take a lot of work,” Spring said. Sensors, on the other hand, will “know before you know that you are at risk of a relapse,” she said.

She said the medical community, particularly insurers and employers, likely will have a strong interest in the application. Congestive heart failure patients can improve their health and reduce hospitalization by sticking to a healthy diet, she said, and smokers are healthier when they quit and stick to it.

Other universities participating in the program are Cornell Tech, Georgia Tech, Ohio State, Rise, UCLA, UC San Diego, UC San Francisco, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the University of Memphis and the University of Michigan. San Francisco-based non-profit Open mHealth is also on the team.