Heart Foundation recognises innovative physical activity chatbot research

20 October 2021

CQUniversity physical activity researcher Professor Corneel Vandelanotte has secured a National Heart Foundation (NHF) grant to develop a smart and engaging chatbot to increase physical activity and improve health in Australians.

The Heart Foundation awarded a $150 000 Vanguard Grant with an additional $10 000 provided as a recipient of the Ross Hohnen Innovation Award' recognising Professor Vandelanotte for having submitted the most outstanding and innovative grant application.

Professor Vandelanotte will undertake the two-year project in collaboration with his CQUniversity colleague Dr Quyen To' University of South Australia Professor Carol Maher and Queensland University of Technology Professor Stewart Trost.

The team believes the innovative chatbot will improve physical activity and in turn reduce the likelihood of developing life-threatening cardiovascular disease (CVD).

"As less than half of Australians are meeting physical activity recommendations' cost-effective population-based strategies to increase physical activity are needed'" Prof Vandelanotte said.

"Increasing physical activity at scale is difficult' though applying Machine Learning (ML) offers innovative options for progress.

"ML-based chatbots that apply natural language processing' reinforcement learning and integrate real-time external data' such as an activity tracker or GPS' can provide highly personalised physical activity counselling."

Prof Vandelanotte said the Heart Foundation's funding is instrumental in their goal of creating the first comprehensive ML-based physical activity chatbot (think of it as a virtual coach) that can be web' app' messenger and/or smart speaker-based.

"Thank you to the NHF who have not only offered support to undertake this new project but who also think it is highly innovative too'" Prof Vandelanotte said.

"It will be an intensive process to develop chatbot software' train chatbot ML-algorithms and undertake preliminary efficacy testing in a randomised controlled trial (RCT) over the next two years.

"This funding gives our team a real opportunity to build an innovative intervention tool that may actually be more effective in improving physical activity compared to the current web- or app-based physical activity interventions."

Heart Foundation interim CEO' Professor Garry Jennings said the Heart Foundation was proud to present Professor Corneel Vandelanotte with the Ross Hohnen Award recognising Research Excellence' in memory of Ross Hohnen AM' OBE who passed away in 2003' to encourage innovation in cardiovascular research.

"We fund research that has the greatest potential to make a significant impact on heart health in Australia.

"Coronary heart disease is still Australia's single biggest killer' despite many improvements in the prevention' diagnosis and treatment of heart disease in the past 60 years."

In addition to his grant success' this week Professor Vandelanotte was also appointed as the Founding Editor-in-Chief for a new BioMed Central journal: Journal of Activity' Sedentary and Sleep Behaviours (open access).

"BioMed Central is a high-quality publisher that owns many high-impact factor journals'" Prof Vandelanotte said.

"Physical activity' sedentary behaviour and sleep all influence one another and are all related to both physical and mental health outcomes. To improve health' it is important that we increase our understanding of how these behaviours interact.

"Research in this area is increasing exponentially and JASSB is the first journal specifically dedicated to studying the combined effects of activity' sedentary and sleep behaviours."