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Digital pick-me-up

The “eLan” research project uses an app to help the long-term unemployed in rural areas lead healthier lives.

Everyone wants to be healthy. But leading a really healthy life can sometimes be difficult. The "eLan" research project at Furtwangen University aims to help people learn how to adopt a healthy lifestyle. To be more exact, it is a health intervention tool for the long-term unemployed in rural areas, a group that is particularly at risk of leading unhealthy lives.

Rural life means – greater distances, limited public transport and a high level of social control in smaller village communities. "Shame plays a major role in the lives of people who no longer have an income of their own," says Professor Dr Kirsten Steinhausen of the Faculty of Health, Safety, Society, who heads the "eLan" project at HFU. It takes a lot for these people to join an exercise class, and it’s even harder if they don't own suitable clothing. Or have no money for the bus ticket. Often the reason why people have become long-term unemployed is because they already suffer from health problems - which are then exacerbated by further lack of exercise and dietary deficiencies.

Creating awareness for a healthy lifestyle

At HFU, Professor Steinhausen is fine-tuning a very special app with her colleagues Professor Dr Christian Weidmann, an expert in rural health, and Professor Dr Christophe Kunze, who specialises in assistive health technologies. The "eLan" app is like a digital pick-me-up, intended to help sufferers develop more awareness for healthy behaviour. "We focus on educating users and provide motivational triggers," explains Steinhausen. This often involves providing basic information - for example, that soft drinks are unhealthy because they contain a lot of sugar, or that convenience foods are not necessarily inexpensive. Essentially the app should motivate users so that they set themselves individual goals and are encouraged to achieve them. To this end there is even a digital "trophy cabinet" in the app where praise and awards can be stored.

Nutrition and exercise as success factors

Two doctoral students have dedicated their research theses to the HFU research project, focusing on nutrition and exercise respectively, the two main areas which app users can initially choose between. Iris Weishaupt is developing incentives to exercise for the new app. "As a team, we are using the MobileCoach platform to design content on exercise and nutrition, which was determined by carrying out a needs analysis. Participants receive content by chat messages in the form of information and quizzes, as well as daily and weekly tasks," she reports. Exercises are demonstrated through the use of photos and videos. In the area of nutrition, Jennifer Mages-Torluoglu is developing ways to encourage healthy eating. She was also heavily involved in writing the project application – at the time when she was still a member of staff on the Applied Health Sciences programme.

Putting the app to the test

The "eLan" project, funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research as part of the FH-Sozial programme, has been running for two years and is now heading into its exciting final phase. "In October we will be launching a pre-test of the app. Fifteen users will test it for nine weeks," explains Professor Dr Kirsten Steinhausen. At the beginning of next year, a large study will then be conducted with up to 200 long-term unemployed, the results of which will put the finishing touches on the new app. The project team will recruit the study participants through project partners, Fulda University of Applied Sciences and numerous employment agencies that specialise in the long-term unemployed.

In the future, Professor Steinhausen hopes to cooperate with health insurance companies which have already expressed an interest in the new prevention tool. The digital health intervention app will be accompanied by four face-to-face sessions designed to strengthen the participants' sense of community. At the joint cooking class, for example, participants will try out recipes from the app –sure to be a fun and tasty way to motivate!