Future-Self Avatar Improves Health Motivation, but Not Behavioral Changes

To reduce bias based on the user’s current health status, a mobile health intervention used a future-self avatar to help individuals understand long-term effects of physical activity and nutrition on their body.

A mobile app that allows users to see what their future self would look like when making certain health choices significantly increased motivation to lead a healthy lifestyle, but did not significantly improve users’ actual behavior to achieve that goal.

These findings were published in Journal of Medical Internet Research, where the study authors measured the impact of FutureMe, a mobile app that tracks physical activity and food purchases.

The primary feature of the mobile health (mHealth) app is the future-self avatar, which users could personalize to accurately represent themselves at the start of the intervention. After setup, the 2D avatar then transformed to represent a version aged up 20 years from the set age.

Changes in the future-self avatar were based on 5 main factors, 1 physical subcategory, and 6 nutritional subcategories:

  • fitness state: physical activity
  • heart health: sodium, saturated fatty acids
  • mental well-being: fruits and vegetables, fiber
  • bone health: protein
  • blood sugar: sugar

FutureMe features also included a personalized food basket analysis and grocery shopping tips.

“The FutureMe app aims to promote the overall nutritional quality of participants’ food purchases and to encourage increases in physical activity to ≥7500 steps per day, based on prior findings that health benefits can be achieved at this level,” the study authors explained.

To determine the effects of the mHealth intervention, the authors conducted a 12-week randomized controlled trial and followed up with interviews.

A total of 95 adult participants in Switzerland were initially included, with a balanced gender ratio and a median (IQR) age of 44 (19) years. All participants spoke German, used a smartphone, and used at least 1 of 2 leading Swiss grocery loyalty cards. Data were collected between November 2020 and April 2021.

The participants were divided into 2 groups, with 42 in the intervention group who used FutureMe and 53 in the control group receiving a conventional intervention with text and graphics. However, due to only 30 participants completing the intervention and the overall small sample size, the authors noted that the statistical power of the findings is limited and requires further research.

After the 12-week intervention, the authors found no statistically significant changes in physical behavior or nutritional intake over the course of the 12-week intervention. However, they did find that using the future-self avatar significantly increased intrinsic motivation among users, a factor that did not increase in the control group (P = .03).

“Intrinsic motivation is associated with more sustainable behavior change than extrinsically motivated behavior,” the authors said. “Future-self avatars, as an element of gamification, might thus meaningfully contribute to improving the longer-term effectiveness of mHealth interventions, compared to more traditional text-based and numerical interfaces.”

They also noted that future research is needed, and that the small sample size and strict tracking of groceries from only certain grocery stores limited this study’s abilities. Despite this, the study shows the future-self avatar can be modified to reduce present bias and promote sustainable behavioral change to encourage a healthy lifestyle.

Reference

Mönninghoff A, Fuchs K, Wu J, Albert J, Mayer S. The effect of a future-self avatar mobile health intervention (FutureMe) on physical activity and food purchases: randomized controlled trial. J Med Internet Res. Published online July 7, 2022. doi:10.2196/32487