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To fight childhood obesity, Israeli docs prescribe app that gamifies weight loss

The pandemic has accentuated the problem; with kids struggling to follow health advice between doctor appointments, prize-driven software could help keep them committed

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustrative: A child stands on a scale (Dmitriy Protsenko; iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative: A child stands on a scale (Dmitriy Protsenko; iStock by Getty Images)

Israel’s largest hospital has deployed smartphone gamification to help tackle what doctors say is a crisis of childhood obesity — one that has gotten worse during the coronavirus pandemic.

Doctors are telling young patients who struggle with weight gain to use an Israeli-developed app called Rumble to track steps taken and other forms of exercise.

The data doesn’t just sit on the device: Good stats are rewarded with “health points” that can be cashed in for real-life prizes like healthy treats and exercise equipment. Kids can also choose to compete with each other over how many points they win.

Sheba Medical Center is the first hospital in the world to integrate Rumble — which is already used by hundreds of thousands of Israelis — into its treatment plans.

After a successful year-long pilot, during which the app was constantly being customized to fit hospital use, it’s now given to all childhood obesity patients. The company behind the app is now starting to market it to American hospitals too.

“Obesity has become one of the most common chronic diseases among children,” pediatrician and nutrition expert Prof. Gal Dubnov-Raz, who introduced the new tech to Sheba, told The Times of Israel.

“It has gotten worse during the pandemic, when children’s lifestyles deteriorated markedly in all aspects, and the proportion of obesity increased. But the pandemic also boosted the use of telemedicine, which perfectly fits childhood obesity treatment.

A screen from the Rumble app showing a competition between patients at Sheba Medical Center (courtesy of Sheba Medical Center)

“So we embraced the tool and made it our main mode of treatment even now, in times of much less social distancing.”

Children are still coached by nutritionists and other medical staff, including pediatricians, sports medicine specialists, pediatric and sports nutritionists, child exercise physiologists and sports psychologists. But the app helps surmount the major challenge of treatment: namely that kids often lose interest in their nutrition and health program between such meetings.

Iris Shtein, an innovation executive at Sheba, said: “The incorporation of gamification has proven to keep kids connected and engaged for a much longer time. The success of this cooperation has the potential to reach the international arena and make a global impact on not just children and youth, but on people everywhere.”

The more users perform actions that promote a healthy lifestyle, the more digital “health coins” they win. Coins are earned through taking a high number of steps daily, participating in training, reading and watching healthy lifestyle content and answering customized questionnaires.

A doctor coaches a patient for childhood obesity at Sheba Medical Center, referring to data from his app used to aid weight loss (courtesy of Sheba Medical Center)

Alon Silberberg, CEO of Rumble Wellness, the company behind the app, told The Times of Israel: “It’s an extraordinary feeling knowing that our technology helps children get active and off the couch. It has a crucial impact on their health and self-esteem. Children oftentimes do not have the tools or willpower to embark on this difficult journey, and that’s where technology comes in.

“In the world we live in, children are born into a lifestyle filled with screens and technology, which according to many studies leads to obesity. What we do is to use those screens, or the technology that the children have been using their entire life, and utilize it in their favor. This process happens naturally because smartphones and apps are already an inseparable part of today’s generation.”

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