An Exercise in Research


How can we use technology to help people lead more active lives? That’s one question Swathi and her team in the Exercise, Technology, and Cognition (ETC) Lab are looking to answer.

A sophomore majoring in Kinesiology on a Pre-Med track, Swathi knew she wanted to participate in research as part of her collegiate experience. It’s the main reason she chose to attend the research-rich institution of Illinois.

Swathi posing with her sister in graduation cap and gown
Swathi, right, celebrates her older sister’s graduation on the patio of Foellinger Auditorium.

“It’s a prestigious university,” says Swathi. “I actually had an older sister who came here, and listening to her experiences, I thought this was the best place for me to surround myself with faculty as well as other students who have the same goals and aspirations as I do.”

When she arrived on campus her freshman year, Swathi was already looking to make her research plans a reality.

“I talked to my advisor, and she told me to reach out to the professors I had,” Swathi says. “So I did that, and I told them what I was interested in, which is physical activity and sports medicine.”

It was through one of these email exchanges that Swathi first learned of Dr. Sean Mullen and the ETC Lab. An associate professor in Swathi’s department as well as the lab’s director, Dr. Mullen develops programs to increase individuals’ physical activity and cognitive functioning. Swathi was intrigued, so she set up a meeting with him to learn more.

“We talked in person to see if it was a fit,” she says.

Both felt that it was. Dr. Mullen soon offered Swathi a position on his team working as an undergraduate research assistant. Excited by how closely his work aligned with her interests, she accepted.

Upon beginning in the lab her sophomore year, Swathi was assigned to help run Dr. Mullen’s main study, which focuses on middle- to older-age adults who engage in little to no physical activity. Throughout the week, these participants meet one-on-one with Swathi or one of her peers for a unique two-hour workout session.

Swathi in her lab working through exercises with a student
Swathi leads a two-hour workout session involving exergaming as part of Dr. Mullen’s study.

“We incorporate exergaming, which is basically video games, and they exercise while playing those video games. We use an Xbox, and it tracks their movements,” says Swathi.

Following weeks of motivation in the ETC Lab, the participants are then asked to continue to perform the exercises on their own using a Fitbit and report their activity back to Swathi and the team.

“We’re currently on our sixth round of collecting data, and analysis won’t happen until after we collect it all,” Swathi says. “But hopefully in the next two years that I’m here, I can see what’s happening with all these participants.”

Swathi can’t reveal any more since the lab doesn’t discuss ongoing trials. But all of the research conducted by Dr. Mullen and his team relates to finding new ways to help people become more active and maximize their experience to get the most benefits.

“You don’t just have to go to the gym and run on a treadmill,” says Swathi. “You can also work out by having fun—especially by winning games and earning points and hearing the slashes and the clicks. You want to play more; you want to beat your high score. It’s a different approach to motivating people to live an active and healthy lifestyle.”

It’s also an approach in which Swathi is fully invested:

“I’ve personally experienced benefits of physical activity. It makes me feel better, it makes me want to work harder, it gives me more energy throughout the day. So I want to share that with other people.”