KALAMAZOO, Mich.—The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the relationship between technology and wellness. Virtual workout apps, telehealth visits and distance education are now the norm. Keeping users engaged in positive behaviors and effectively using the technology, however, can be difficult. That's where Dr. Robert Bensley and Jason Rivas come in.
The duo, who met decades ago as professor and student at Western Michigan University, created a podcast to share their public health knowledge. "Oh, Behave!" explores the universe of health products and services, decoding behavioral science and technology to help create effective programs that can positively change health behaviors.
"I always like diving into new technology, trying new things out, testing the waters, and this was an opportunity for us to have a little fun with something and not try to take it too seriously," says Rivas, CEO of Maia Synergy—a company he and Bensley spun out of Western in April 2020. "It's a platform for us to discuss topics we are passionate about."
"It's a ton of fun because we've never done anything like this before," adds Bensley, coordinator of Western's undergraduate public health program. "We've got this wealth of information, and we just thought it would be a great way to be able to share with other nonprofits or individuals who are trying to make sense of what they can do to help people with their behavior change."
So far, the podcast has discussed topics such as the luxury of health and the "right to be fit;" increasing food insecurity and how technology could reverse the trend; hacking health literacy; the emerging impacts of COVID-19 on education, mental wellness and domestic violence; and the power of the food industry. Next up is a sort of behavior change program boot camp: A four-part series laying out how to assess, plan, implement and evaluate a potential program.
"There could be a fitness expert who has gone online—they've created a platform and a following. They have years of personal training experience, but they're not sure what to do next," says Bensley. "Or it might be somebody who's a dietician who has a tremendous amount of experience with food-related issues, but what do they do with that? We're looking to help these smaller places that can make an impact on people's lives."
Rivas, who earned two bachelor's degrees and a master's degree from Western, joined the University's eHealth Innovation team in 2002. He worked with Bensley on the first iteration of a behavior change platform for the Michigan Women, Infant and Children program, which later expanded to the USDA Child and Adult Care Food Program. In 2019, Bensley secured a patent for the platform they'd been developing over the years. With the help of Western's Office of Research and Innovation, the pair took a leap of faith and launched Maia Synergy in April 2020.
"We both have been contributing so much of what we do day-to-day to that passion of ours to be able to make a difference out there and try to put something into the world that is not just profit driven; it has a social aspect to it. I think that's really important," Rivas says.
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