Technology provides pathway to fitness after heart attacks

The Pathway system tracks participants’ movements and provides feedback during exercise sessions

From left, Gerard Scully, Angela Doyle and Nicholas Nolan, participants in the chronic illness exercise rehabilitation programmes at DCU.

From left, Gerard Scully, Angela Doyle and Nicholas Nolan, participants in the chronic illness exercise rehabilitation programmes at DCU.

 

Surviving a heart attack is a major life event, and it usually takes time to rebuild fitness. Exercise can help reduce the risk of having another cardiac incident, so a new study in Ireland is using technology to help people keep active in the longer term after a heart attack.

Called Pathway (Physical Activity Towards Health), the study wants to stop people who have had a heart attack falling away from structured exercise regimes after they leave the hospital, says Dr Kieran Moran, head of Dublin City University’s school of health and human performance and a researcher with the Insight Centre for Data Analytics.

“When people who are doing cardiac rehabilitation after a heart attack leave the hospital programme they are encouraged to exercise in a community setting,” he says. “But only about 10 per cent do this, and then half of those stop going, for a variety of reasons: it may be too far for them to travel, or maybe they don’t want to exercise in a large group.”

Exercise at home

The Pathway study aims to make it easier to exercise at home by using technology that tracks the person’s movements and adjusts the exercise regime to suit their fitness, and that encourages them to connect with others who are on the programme.

As well as DCU, the €5 million EU-funded study includes partners in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Greece and Italy, and it hopes to recruit 120 people undergoing cardiac rehabilitation to take part, including participants from the Mater Misericordiae University Hospital and Beaumont Hospital in Dublin.

Participants will design their own home-based exercise regime and the programme will be delivered on their computer, where an avatar will show them how to do the exercises and a Microsoft Xbox Kinect will track their movements.

“If the person is doing the exercise correctly, the avatar will give encouragement, or if the person is not moving as well as the system predicts they should be, the avatar will ask them if they want to slow down,” says Moran.

“Based on the person’s movements and responses, the programme will change its trajectory, and this is where it is different from, say, a DVD-based exercise programme, which keeps going regardless of how the person doing the exercises is doing or feeling.”

The Pathway system will also encourage people to exercise outside too, perhaps going for short walks, says Moran, and participants will wear movement sensors so the researchers can see how well this approach works.

Getting connected

Pathway will also give people the option to connect with each other virtually. “Through the system they can link with other people on the programme, who might be in other European countries,” says Moran.

“They will be encouraged to talk to each other, because they have all been through major changes in their lives recently, and we know social interaction improves people’s mental and physical health.”

They can opt to wear a heart monitor to get immediate feedback if there is a problem, and their progress through the programme can be shared with their GP and cardiac specialist.

Moran hopes the study will fine-tune and validate the Pathway system so that it can be used by more people, and that it sheds light on some of the barriers to exercise after a heart attack.

“We have to figure out what is stopping people from adopting healthy behaviours and model better ways to encourage them,” he says.

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