Researchers at the University of South Australia have found that chatbots are an effective tool to significantly improve sleep, along with physical activity and diet.

The systematic review and meta-analysis, published in Nature Digital Medicine, found that chatbots—otherwise known as conversational agents or virtual assistants—can quickly and capably support you to improve sleep duration and quality, increase your daily steps, and add extra fruits and vegetables to your diet.

Specifically, chatbots led to:

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

Poor sleep, insufficient physical activity, excessive sedentary behavior, and poor diet are major global health issues and are among the leading modifiable causes of depression, anxiety, and chronic diseases including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancers, and increased mortality.

Lead researcher Ben Singh, PhD, University of South Australia, says the findings highlight the potential of artificial intelligence to revolutionize healthcare delivery.

“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,” Singh says in a release. “For health, this capability presents tremendous opportunities for chatbots to promote effective interventions that support wellbeing and a healthy lifestyle.”

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

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

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

Senior researcher and University of South Australia professor Carol Maher, PhD, emphasizes that while chatbots present an innovative approach to lifestyle-related health issues, a blended approach of chatbots and human coaching could be the most beneficial.

“Chatbots offer personalized and interactive lifestyle support that may be more engaging and meaningful to users than other tech-based lifestyle tools,” says Maher in a release. “They adapt to individual user’s needs, tailoring their advice based on the user’s responses, habits, and preferences. The level of personalization may lead to more effective motivation and advice.”

However, caution is also needed.

“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,” she says in the release. 

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.

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