Grant Supports Research on Child Wellness, Technology

Assistant professor April Bowling is leading a team of researchers studying whether exergaming paired with with virtual health coaching will help motivate children to exercise more often.

Bowling and her collaborative team of public and private institutions have received a $200,000 grant for the GameSquad Wellness Program for Neurodiverse Youth, studying whether exergaming paired with virtual health coaching can motivate children with mental health disorders and autism to increase their exercise for its health benefits.

Bowling is the lead investigator in the collaborative that includes UMass Medical School, Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Boston Medical Center Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics Clinic, and Marblehead Public Schools’ Therapeutic Intervention Designed for Educational Success Program.

Funding is being provided by the federal Health Resources and Services Administration’s Maternal and Child Health Bureau in Washington, D.C. through UMass Medical Center’s Healthy Weight Research Network.

Children with mental health disorders and autism suffer from chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure at higher rates than other children. That is in part because they are more inactive, Bowling said.

“Even children who don’t face these challenges generally don’t get enough exercise in our country today. Now imagine a child who struggles with sports or who regularly doesn’t feel well enough to play.” The goal isn’t to have the children, ages 12 to 17, lose weight, just to get them more active.  However, this particular intervention has proven to help obese children lose weight in a past study, Bowling said.

Children in the study use an Xbox-type of controller to play games such as “Just Dance” that require them to get up and move around to advance to the next level, much like the popular Wii games but more appropriate for older children.

“We’re trying to turn the tables and find a way to get healthy with something they like to do already,” Bowling said. “They are actually getting a workout while they play the game.”

Children wear a Fitbit to track their movement so results can be analyzed.

Children in the study work with a virtual health coach located in Lousiana at Pennington Biomedical Research Center, who first developed the Game Squad intervention for typically developing children. The coach discusses exergaming and exercise while offering advice on sleep and nutritional foods.

“They develop a relationship talking about health with the child and parent,” Bowling said. “That is probably the most important part of the intervention and has worked well in the past. We are hoping it can work well for children with autism and those facing mental health challenges as well.”


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