Emi Yasaka's Mid-Thesis Offerings: 5 Approaches to "In The Running"


Modern life, with its increased dependency on screens and convenience, has led many people toward a sedentary lifestyle involving little or no physical activity or exercise. The consequences of this behavior are not only in the rise of lifestyle diseases such as Type 2 diabetes or cancer, but also lead to the prevalence of psychological disorders such as ADHD, substance abuse, eating disorders, and depression. In her Masters Thesis, Emi Yasaka explores the relationship between physical activities and motivation in order to improve health, economic prosperity, and positive social outcomes.

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Research indicates that socioeconomic and demographic factors are the strongest predictors of obesity rates. In the United States, people with higher education and higher social status tend to exercise more and stay thinner throughout their lives than people in lower socioeconomic status who come from neighborhoods with high poverty rates. This correlation between the rate of poverty and the prevalence of obesity is seen both in urban and rural environments. And addressing and promoting an active life can lead to a better life for both the general population (many of whom complain of  overworking) and the disadvantaged population who often suffer from lack of opportunity.

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Emi surfaced five essential elements that influence the likelihood of leading an active life—Mental Ability, Environmental Factors, Social Support, Natural Ability and Effort—where some elements are more important than others, depending on the level of commitment and interest in attaining fitness. For example, for fitness enthusiasts, mental ability, social support and effort are more important than the other elements. For sub­-elite level athletes, moreover, mental ability, social support and natural ability  are crucial. (They already have a strong will and make considerable effort in training regardless of outside barriers.) For someone who wants to begin exercising, however, environmental factors, mental ability, and social support are the key elements.

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Environmental factors are important for people regardless of the level of commitment and interest in attaining fitness. Although there are many small parks and playgrounds in inner city environments, for example, they often appear uninviting and cold—with chain-­linked fencing and tall buildings surrounding them. People may live close to the urban parks, for another example, but if the parks aren’t a pleasant place to gather, they will be less likely to use them. Here, Emi proposes painting a walking path, and installing ambiance lighting in urban parks. The "track" would perhaps modify behavior by "inviting" walking or running, and the lighting would help people feel safer in the evenings, as well as providing a longer active period for children exercising after school.

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In New York City, Research also reveals that the Bronx has the most parkland and the largest parks of any borough in New York City, yet more than 62 percent of Bronx residents are overweight or obese, higher than the rate in any of New York City’s other four boroughs. There are two major parks in the Bronx—Van Courtlandt Park and Pelham Bay Park. Hosting events at these parks and distributing maps in novel and unusual contexts—illustrating vehicle-­free walking paths or transportation options to the park—can encourage the use of the parks by the neighboring residents.

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Emi wanted to address a spectrum of users in the first half of her this. She figured that "Sub­elite" and "elite athletes" will likely possess all five essential elements. In his book "Sports Gene," David Epstein describes the role of genetics in athletic performance, citing studies that evidence how genes may have more influence on athletic performance than what people have long believed. (Since the 1970s, for example, runners from countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia have dominated the field of long distance running.) With the growing interest in genetics testing, Emi postulates a DNA kit for determining and "designing" the ideal, personalized training based on body make ­up. Core runners, in particular, are very interested in this kind of technology to improve their performance, so there is reason to believe that others who posess the funds and opportunity would take advantage of such a service.

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On the other end of the spectrum, the "beginning exerciser" can benefit more from having friends and family who can exercise with them. Here Emi created a speculative Dog Walking Service that connects dog owners with people who can benefit from walking or running with the dogs. This would be very useful for people who need some extra motivation to get out the door, and for those who are self-conscious about their abilities and would prefer to exercise by themselves. (Well, perhaps with a canine friend!) Dogs, by nature, love to be active and outdoors, so they would prove to be very faithful exercise partners.

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The final concept is a book of short stories and profiles of accomplished athletes and how they contributed to a greater social change beyond their athletic pursuits. Mental ability is the most important factor in sustaining an active lifestyle, and activity tracking and encouragement from others is beneficial. But if a person doesn’t find exercise to be both enjoyable and satisfying, it will be difficult for them to find sustaining motivation. Sub-­elite and elite athletes have a strong desire to challenge themselves, a willingness to work for their goals, and often "great narratives." This book is meant to inspire and encourage those who want to incorporate physical activities into their daily lives through the stories of accomplished, but often unknown, athletes.

Looking forward, the thesis project will focus on one of these five areas. The final prototype will be tested on the target audience through intervention, survey, and first-person interviews. "The goal for the next semester is to dive deep into one concept, refine the target audience, and create the support system around the project," remarks Emi. "Organizations such as the New York Road Runners and Back on My feet use running as a catalyst to empower a disadvantaged population. They are great examples where physical exercise has brought positive social and transformational effects on communities, and this project will build upon these same core values and missions, but with a more long-­term vision and differentiated product offerings."