Does using health apps really improve health?

Does using health apps really improve health?

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Today we use our mobile devices for almost everything – news, recipes, driving instructions, how-tos, entertainment – sports, TV, movies, video games, online casinos, Everygame poker fun – the list goes on and on.

More and more people are also downloading health apps onto their phones and other mobile devices. In fact, a recent study found that the number of people in the United States using health or fitness apps has increased from 68.7 million in 2019 to 87.4 million people in 2020.  That is a 27% increase in one year which is huge and researchers expect that number to increase even more.

There is a lot of discussion as to whether these mobile apps have any effect on people’s health.  Some are skeptical but recent studies do suggest that the answer may be yes.  However, researchers are cautious as findings are not definitive.  Studies do suggest that these apps may have a positive effect on some health- related behaviors.

Below we will look at what research has found concerning the various kinds of health apps on the market.

Nutrition and health

Developing healthy eating habits is something that is important for everyone.  However, as we get older it becomes even more important as healthy eating can prevent many diseases that occur as we age, and particularly in middle age.   There are now many apps that are available and look to assist you in this endeavor. A piece that appeared in the Journal of Medical Internet Research reports that studies found that health apps which are used by middle aged and older people, offering nutritional guidance improve a number of health markers and medical situations.

This report was based on scientists having examined the results of 70 studies that measured the effectiveness of health apps that focused on nutrition. And particularly those apps where users were adults over the age of 40 and most were dealing with chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes.

The report states that these health apps were “highly successful in significantly improving adherence to health behavior, Framingham CVD risk, dietary behavior, weight and BMI.” It was also reported that those people involved in intervention groups saw positive changes in their health markers, as compared to control groups, in areas like LDL cholesterol levels, blood pressure levels, waist circumference and HbA1c. The authors do stress, however, that the findings should be looked at cautiously owing to the many variables in the study.  Not all the studies were measured for the same thing.  For instance, fruit and vegetable intake did appear to improve in control groups but only three studies included in the work showed this result. Also, a lot of the studies looked at other factors other than nutrition.

So, there does seem to be some evidence to support the effectiveness of health apps.  However, much more research is needed to really gain concrete knowledge in this area.

Apps to help with Medication adherence

Not adhering to taking medication correctly can lead to serious health problems and mean that the treatment is not effective.  It is estimated that 20% to 50% of people do not take their medication in the proper way. (Journal Medical Internet Research).   This concern led researchers to look into whether apps could help to resolve this issue and 11 studies were examined that were published between 2000-2017 which involved a variety of sample sizes ranging from 16 to 99 participants.

On examination it was found that seven of the studies showed that the use of a mobile app increased treatment adherence, five of the studies showed an improved adherence to treatment from 7% to 40%.  The conclusion was that these mobile apps can help people manage their medication and they are “an appropriate method for managing medication at home.”

Help with physical activity

The large majority of health apps on the market are fitness apps where the aim is to help improve a person’s physical activity.     Some experts do see them as helpful getting a person into a routine of regular physical activity but they are not really going to help with other areas of fitness.

Researchers looked at a number of studies on these apps to see whether they increased the number of daily steps taken by users.  They did find that people using fitness apps did take more steps daily compared to control groups but not by much, on average about 476 steps more.

They did find that particular kinds of fitness apps were more effective than others.  For instance, they found that apps have a “significant positive effect on physical activity, when they offer exercise programs that last up to 3 months and when they focus exclusively on physical activity, rather than a combination of health behaviors.”    To sum up, the researchers found only minimal evidence that fitness apps really increased a user’s physical activity.  Even the ones they find most effective proved to work in the short term, not providing sustained physical activity.

Mental health issues

Today mental health issues and how to deal with them is a major concern.   Is it possible that there is an app that can help with this?  The answer may well be yes according to a recent study.

A study was carried out looking at a self-guided mental health app to see how useful it was.  The study had 84 participants, university students, who were all experiencing some form of depression and anxiety.   The study took place over a period of 6 weeks and a control group of the same size was used to compare results.  The app tracks moods and provided relaxation activities.

By the sixth week, the app was still being used at least once a week by 83% of those participating in the study.  The results of the study showed some evidence that participants using the app did experience a reduction in symptoms of depression.  However, there was only little evidence that it reduced anxiety.  But researchers do feel optimistic about these apps saying “apps for anxiety and depression hold great promise with clear clinical advantages” but still more research is needed in this area.