Exercise’s health benefits are clear — it lowers the risk of everything from cardiovascular disease to cancer, obesity to depression. But even for those aware of all this, getting off the couch and out the door can be a challenge.
Enter CrimsonZip, a new effort debuting this fall to get Harvard moving with the help of a mobile phone app and a new website. It is designed especially for the University community and encourages all kinds of physical activity, from rigorous endeavors like running, swimming, lifting, and exercise classes to just going for a walk or a leisurely bike ride.
“We’re not looking to turn everyone into long-distance runners, but if we can get 10 percent to 20 percent more activity from people — and then they stick with it — the implications for their lives will be substantial,” said Richard Lee, professor of medicine and stem cell and regenerative biology, and co-chair of the CrimsonZip program.
A key to making it all work involves another healthful pursuit: maintaining strong social circles. CrimsonZip tries to marry the benefits of exercise and social connection with features that make it easy to not only learn about activities on campus — like a run with Harvard on the Move, intramural games, or signups for the upcoming Jimmy Fund Walk — but also to connect with others who are interested in those events.
Harvard’s many subcommunities already offer a wealth of physical activity programs, but it’s not always easy to know what’s out there. CrimsonZip addresses this directly by putting the information in one place. It also promotes connectedness for more casual activities, allowing users to check whether any other users in the library, a dorm, or a House feel like taking a walk for a study break.
“What we anticipate is that folks who are physically active with other people will be more likely to continue doing that because they’re getting a social benefit in addition to a physical benefit,” said project co-chair Giang Nguyen, executive director of Harvard University Health Services, associate provost for campus health and well-being, and the Henry K. Oliver Chair of Hygiene. “There is a lot of research that points to the mental health benefits of exercise, and there is a lot of research to point toward the mental health benefits of social connectedness. Just as with the We’re All Human campaign and other efforts to create a culture that embraces the importance of wellbeing and mental health, CrimsonZip is trying simultaneously to take advantage of both physical activity and social connectedness while supporting mental well-being.”
A 2022 study by researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health showed that social connections protect against both depression and anxiety. In addition, the decades-long Harvard Study of Adult Development showed that strong social connections provide lifelong physical health benefits: Those who were most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were also those who were healthiest at age 80.
So that makes CrimsonZip a twofer for health, and here is how it works. The app creates a calendar of activities that have a physical component, large or small, taking place anywhere on campus. It will be available to students, faculty, and staff, and let them connect with others — whether an established friend group, an impromptu tennis partner, or a one-time cycling companion.
“We bring people to places like Harvard, and we teach them that to be successful you have to sit down and listen to lectures, and then sit down and study,” said Lee. “To be successful in our society, we’re telling you that you have to live unhealthfully, so we wanted to fight back against that.”
The mobile app’s initial rollout is focused on the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Harvard College. The ultimate goal, however, is to expand to all of Harvard’s campuses, and even beyond the University, according to Daniel Lieberman, the Edwin M. Lerner II Professor of the Biological Sciences and another of the program co-chairs. One of the project’s goals is to release the app under a permissive software license so others can use it and adapt it to their own community’s needs.
“If it works here, everybody else on the planet can download this app and use it for themselves and their own institutions,” Lieberman said. “We’re going to make it available to everybody.”