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Aiming to improve student health, Duke researchers plan to launch smartwatch pilot next year

Future first-years may receive a free smartwatch, thanks to a new project at Duke.

Through WearDuke, incoming first-years will use digital health wearable devices to track their activity and sleep and promote healthier habits. The project is conducted by Professor of Medicine Geoff Ginsburg and Susanne Haga, associate professor of medicine, from the Duke's Center for Applied Genomics and Precision Medicine, with partnerships in the Office of the Provost, the School of Medicine and Duke Health System.

“We will initially be focusing on sleep because sleep is very well documented [as something] college students don’t get enough of,” Haga said. “And it’s important to health, mental well-being and academic performance.”

Ginsburg and Haga were inspired to pursue this initiative by research in using individual data to develop personalized treatment recommendations. The two researchers thought that students could benefit from monitoring their own sleep and activity patterns and being aware of their own wellbeing. 

Through WearDuke, the researchers will monitor the health habits and sleep patterns of participating first-years through free wearable technology. Wearable devices under consideration for the study include Fitbit, Garmin, Apple and Polar watches.

“Now that wearable technology is becoming more prominent, we want to try to incorporate that in the student body,” said sophomore Nathan Parikh, a member of the Bass Connections team involved with WearDuke. 

The planning phase for WearDuke will run for three years. During this academic year, researchers will develop a companion app, Haga said. This app will be a way for students to access survey questions, get information about the study and check their rewards.

The project will then feature two pilot studies.

The first one will take place next year. The project team is planning on targeting 180 incoming first-years to wear devices that track sleep patterns. Students will be asked to answer weekly surveys about their health, diet and other behaviors important to sleep. If they track their health for a long-enough period, they would be able to keep the wearable.

The study will most likely take place in Southgate dorm, depending on renovation schedules, she explained. It will mainly be a feasibility study to gauge interest and see whether students are wearing the wearables, answering survey questions, accumulating points and providing feedback about their overall sense of engagement with the study.

The second pilot study will be conducted in two residence halls, she continued. WearDuke team members would not only track users' health data, but they would also recommend ways to improve habits. For instance, if they found that students weren't getting enough sleep, they would propose options on campus to help those students get more sleep—a better-organized schedule, a yoga class, a different pillow or something relaxing.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to sustain that. We would ideally, with support, be able to continue to offer this as long as students are receptive and interested in it,” Haga said.

Right now, they have been planning the initiative and organizing focus groups with students on campus to pose questions about the study regarding aspects like the recruitment structure and the incentive plan.

As far as Parikh and his colleagues know, no extensive studies like this exist on other campuses. However, the University of Vermont is currently using Apple watches to track exercise patterns with students in a more informal study.

Haga noted that the first year of college was a pivotal time for students to begin acting independently and evaluating the impact of their health behaviors.

“By [having a] wearable, you’re able to monitor your own behavior and make your own decisions," Haga said. "Hopefully, that will enable you to develop healthier habits."


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