AI chatbots can help support a healthier lifestyle, boost steps and improve sleep - study

When we think of tools to help us live a healthier lifestyle, artificial intelligence probably isn't the first to spring to mind; but according to new research, chatbots are not only an effective way to boost your physical activity, but also improve sleep and diet. 

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of South Australia (UniSA) in Adelaide, marks the first systematic review and meta-analysis of its kind.

Published in the peer-reviewed medical journal NJP Digital Medicine, the study found that chatbots - otherwise known as conversational agents or virtual assistants - can quickly and capably support you to increase your daily steps, incorporate extra fruits and vegetables into your diet, and even improve sleep duration and quality.

Specifically, chatbots led to:

  • An extra 735 steps per day
  • One additional serving of fruit and vegetables per day
  • An additional 45 minutes of sleep per night.

Insufficient physical activity, excessive sedentary behaviour, poor diet and poor sleep are among the leading modifiable causes of depression, anxiety and chronic diseases including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancers and increased mortality, the researchers noted. 

UniSA's Dr Ben Singh, the lead researcher, said the findings highlight the potential artificial intelligence has to revolutionise healthcare - even by alleviating pressure on the health system.

"When we think of chatbots, we often think of simple applications such as daily news notifications or Uber orders. But in recent years, this technology has advanced to the point where it can sometimes be hard to determine whether you are chatting to a machine, or a real person," Dr Singh said in a statement on the findings.

"For health, this capability presents tremendous opportunities for chatbots to promote effective interventions that support wellbeing and a healthy lifestyle.

"Their appeal lies in the way that they can generate immediate, appealing, and personalised responses, which prompt users to make better decisions about their everyday movement, eating habits and sleep.

"Interestingly, we found that text-based chatbots are more effective than speech or voice-based AI, which suggests that, at least for the time being, text-based communication is more conducive to achieving positive outcomes in health-related interventions.

"Our study found chatbots were effective across different age groups, dispelling the notion that they are useful only for younger, tech-savvy users."

Woman's hand use artificial intelligence with smartphone. AI Chatbot Smart Digital Customer Service Application Concept
Photo credit: Getty Images

Senior researcher Professor Carol Maher emphasised that while chatbots present an innovative approach to lifestyle-related health issues, incorporating AI with in-person, human coaching could be the most beneficial.

"Chatbots offer personalised and interactive lifestyle support that may be more engaging and meaningful to users than other tech-based lifestyle tools," Prof Maher said in a statement.

"They adapt to individual user's needs, tailoring their advice based on the user's responses, habits and preferences. The level of personalisation may lead to more effective motivation and advice."

However, the experts also warned to exercise caution in taking advice from chatbots, noting that the best bet at this early stage of research is to use virtual assistants as a supplement to in-real-life coaching. 

"This field of research is young, and there is potential for chatbots to give inappropriate advice. For now, using chatbots to supplement human coaching, could be the best solution, offering the best of both worlds - retaining the unique value of a human coach, combined with round-the-clock support from a chatbot," Maher added.

"While more research is needed, this study suggests that chatbots could help address certain modifiable factors in lifestyle diseases, such as obesity, alleviating pressure on our health system."

The full research can be read here.