Hear what doctors and health coaches say about “mHealth” devices and apps to support a healthy lifestyle.
Remember the phrase… “there’s an app for that?”
It’s especially true in the healthcare space. Today, you’ll find more than 50,000 healthcare apps and devices available to help track or monitor the following (and more):
- Blood pressure
- Blood sugar and diabetes
- Body weight
- Diet (macronutrient/micronutrient) and calories
- Heart rate
- Medication management
- Menstrual cycle and ovulation
- Steps, exercise, fitness, athletic shoe wear and route mapping
Do apps make a difference?
Some people consider healthcare apps tools that are nice to have, while others feel lost without them. Either way, what’s known as “mHealth” technology (wearable devices and the associated applications) have made a noticeable impact.
A Michigan woman recently reported that her smartwatch alerted her to signs of a heart attack. Another popular fitness device is now being used to track the long-term symptoms from the COVID-19 infection.
Scientists are studying whether mHealth makes a lasting difference on health habits (it does, but more research is needed).
Regardless, many people use a variety of online tools that make daily health management easier.
For this article, several PeaceHealth physicians, nurses and caregivers who are also certified Institute of Integrated Nutrition health coaches shared insights from their practices and personal experience on the value and use of healthcare apps and other resources.
Of the host of apps available, the types most useful to average users include:
- Fitness or step tracking
- Food journaling or healthy eating/diet
- Sleep patterns
- Heart rate patterns
“I think food journaling is very important for weight loss,” said Sherri Rutherford, DO. As a physician, she likes to have patients bring in diet data from food trackers. “I also like to hear about patients’ sleep and fitness data. Heartrate patterns can sometimes be helpful as well.”
Misty Carlson, MD, a pediatric cardiologist, frequently recommends health and fitness apps to patients and families. “It has been a challenge for many children to find ways to stay active during the pandemic without school, normal extracurricular activities and gyms being only partially open. I encourage patients to try a variety of apps (and activities) and find something they are likely to stick with.”
Dr. Carlson also points out the value of meditation and mindfulness apps. One app in particular (Healthy Minds*) not only incorporates mindfulness practices, but also provides more detail about how our brains work. “It is very insightful and a good way to help build more resilience and understanding of our emotions.”
What’s most useful to you will depend on your goals, according to Cindy Loesch, RPh, a PeaceHealth pharmacist. “My recommendation is to think about where you need support.” For example, if you’re already highly motivated to exercise, a step tracker won’t be that meaningful. But if you’re less disciplined about watching what you eat, you might find a diet tracker very helpful.
What makes apps great
“Fitness apps are a great way to keep accountable to your health goals,” said Deanna Messner, RN, a nurse at PeaceHealth. “When you know you have to log everything you eat, it makes you think about what you’re going to put in your mouth.”
Apps include engaging education and advice, often delivered in “bite-sized” chunks to help users adopt new habits little by little.
Simple reminders are also built in and beneficial to app users.
Many apps include a “social” component that helps users connect with others. This helps individuals feel less lonely in their efforts to get healthy. It also makes it easier to encourage others you love to follow your example.
mHealth tech can be passive and/or active. Wearable devices measure and collect data (e.g. steps, heart rate, etc.) without users needing to take any action (except for charging and wearing the device). Apps typically require users to interact with and/or enter data (e.g., foods eaten) into the program.
Choosing an app
Once you know which habits or areas you want to focus on, you can narrow down your choices with the following tips:
- Talk to friends or family. “Word of mouth is usually the most helpful way to find an app you trust or feel is worthwhile,” said Dr. Rutherford.
- Ask your doctor. Based on your health history or current concerns, your provider might have useful recommendations.
- Consider your budget. You can often try a free version of a paid app before you buy. Keep in mind that some apps (e.g., heart rate apps) require a wearable or other device such as a smartwatch fitness tracker with specific features.
- Find rewards. Doing what’s good for your health is reward in itself but some apps help you earn money or charitable donations that can give you even more incentive to keep up your healthy choices.
- Explore your employer program. “A lot of employers offer perks for using apps that track fitness and other activities,” noted Summer Meyer, a PeaceHealth caregiver and health coach. “If your workplace has a program, you may be able to turn your workouts into cash, points or gift cards to share with others.” Another benefit of employer-based programs is the opportunity to get to know and support fellow coworkers in a collective effort to be healthy.
Apps are only tools
As powerful as mHealth can be, there are some things to consider.
Apps and devices may take some time and effort to set up. Wearables need regular charging. And even those well-intended reminders can be mentally exhausting some days.
Cecelia Jacobson, RD, a dietitian at PeaceHealth, said some patients feel “policed” or stuck when using apps. “If the app isn’t user-friendly, that just creates yet another barrier to the success of their goals.”
Using apps can also increase screen time and EMF (electric and magnet field) exposure, noted Carrie Viens, a PeaceHealth caregiver and health coach.
And it’s important to remember that apps should be complementary to care and advice from your provider—not a substitute. The next time you go in for a check-up, mention your interest in or use of healthcare apps to let your provider know what you’re doing to take better care of yourself. And if it’s been a while since you saw your doctor, schedule an appointment today.
If you’re trying to cut back on screentime, or if you don’t have a smartphone, you can find other ways to be mindful about your health habits.
You can simply record activities and observations with pen and paper. You can also download and print tracker pages for specific health concerns. Or try these tracker pages for a fun, colorful approach.
Apps and devices* mentioned most frequently by sources for this article
*Mention does not constitute an endorsement by PeaceHealth. Features and functions of an app may extend beyond the primary category under which it is listed.
**Types of data tracked (e.g., step counts, sleep patterns, heart rate, body temperature, etc.) will depend on the device model’s features.