New app promotes exercise, social connection at Harvard

The program grew out of a desire to encourage physical activity in the Harvard community, Lieberman said. Though people sometimes think of college students as universally fit, studies have shown that many aren’t physically active, Lieberman said.

“To help people to be physically active, you have to make it either necessary or rewarding. If you make it neither, guess what, people tend to avoid it, which is a totally natural instinct,” Lieberman said. “For that reason, it used to be that every university in the country required some kind of physical education — Harvard was no exception. Harvard, along with a lot of other universities, dropped that requirement in 1970. Since then, Harvard has made some efforts to make exercise rewarding, but what we have done so far doesn’t work for everybody. Our idea is to create a socially based program to promote physical activity for everybody, not just the people who get it already.”

In 2021, Lieberman wrote “Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do is Healthy and Rewarding,” in which he discusses — among other topics — why getting people to exercise is so difficult. Shortly after the book’s publication, he came into contact with a Harvard alumnus, Jeff Tarr ’66. Tarr read “Exercised,” wanted to do something to help get Harvard students moving, and provided significant funding for the effort.

The project itself had some trouble getting moving. Lieberman, Lee, and Nguyen approached Harvard’s then-President Larry Bacow to discuss the idea in 2020, just a few weeks before COVID-19 ground campus life to a halt.

But as the pandemic’s emergency phase faded, plans accelerated. Nguyen, Lee, and Lieberman co-chaired a committee of faculty and administrators from an array of related fields, including David Laibson, the Robert I. Goldman Professor of Economics; Ben Friedman, the William Joseph Maier Professor of Political Economy; Latanya Sweeney, the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and Technology; I-Min Lee, professor of medicine and of epidemiology; Erin McDermott, the John D. Nichols ’53 Family Director of Athletics; former HUHS Director Paul Barreira; and Maria Francesconi, HUHS’ senior director of nursing and health promotion. Program managers William Goodman, a postdoctoral fellow in Lieberman’s lab, and Morgan Redman, a health educator with HUHS, provided day-to-day oversight.

Goodman and Redman said their efforts focused on creating an app that not only pulls information from across campus into one place and allows users to connect with each other but is also intuitive and easy to use.

“One of the concerns with any application development is you roll out the application, the user downloads it, and if they find it too complicated or too hard to use, 30 seconds later they’ll say, ‘It’s not for me,’ and never touch it again,” Goodman said. “We spent a lot of time making it as intuitive and natural as possible. Success for us will be establishing a user base, and when we move into next year, we’ll do a harder push, have a full feature set that has run through active users, and get some metrics on how much they are using it.”

An advantage the project team has over other app developers is that they’re creating something for a single community rather than a broad, national audience. That will let them adjust to feedback fairly rapidly, should analytics, user comments, or other inputs indicate a feature isn’t popular or is confusing.

“There are lots of competing priorities, especially for first-year students who’ve just stepped on campus,” Redman said. “As we introduce the resource to them, we’re trying to help them think about, ‘How do I have my Harvard experience and also maintain my health and well-being?’ This is a resource to help you do that.”

After the rollout new features will be added, and it will be offered to other Harvard Schools as time goes on. Next year, organizers hope to begin using the app to collect anonymized data to gauge its effectiveness.

“It’s frustrating that we’re teaching people to take on lifestyles that aren’t healthy. That’s not the right message,” Lee said. “The habits you develop when you’re young are important predictors of the habits that you have later.”

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