Mobile technology may help people improve health behaviours

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Smartphone applications and wearable sensors have the potential to help people make healthier lifestyle choices, but scientific evidence of mobile health technologies’ effectiveness for reducing risk factors for heart disease and stroke is limited, according to a scientific statement from the American Heart Association, published in the association’s journal Circulation.

The new statement reviewed the small body of published, peer-reviewed studies about the effectiveness of mobile health technologies for managing weight, increasing physical activity, quitting smoking and controlling high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.

“The fact that mobile health technologies have not been fully studied does not mean that they are not effective. Self-monitoring is one of the core strategies for changing cardiovascular health behaviours. If a mobile health technology, such as a smartphone app for self-monitoring diet, weight or physical activity, is helping you improve your behaviour, then stick with it,” says Lora E Burke, lead author of the statement and professor of nursing and epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh, USA.

Currently, one in five US adults use some technology to track health data and the most popular health apps downloaded are related to exercise, counting steps, or heart rate.

The mobile health technologies examined in the statement correspond to the goals in the American Heart Association’s “Life’s Simple 7”, which are seven simple ways to improve your heart health-eating better, being more active, managing your weight, avoiding tobacco smoke, reducing blood sugar, and controlling both cholesterol and blood pressure.

The examination found that people who include mobile technology in a comprehensive lifestyle programme for weight loss were more successful in short-term weight loss compared to those who tried to lose weight on their own. However, there is no published data on whether the participants maintained their weight loss beyond 12 months. The authors suggest that when considering a mobile health technology weight loss programme, healthcare practitioners should look for one that has many of the same elements as successful person-to-person individualised programmes administered by healthcare professionals, which emphasise a calorie-controlled diet, physical activity, self-monitoring or recording food intake and physical activity in a paper or digital diary, personalised feedback and social support.

In terms of physical activity, the authors said that while the majority of studies show that using an online programme boosted physical activity more than not using one, there has not been enough research to show whether wearable physical activity monitoring devices actually help people move more.

For help in giving up smoking, mobile phone apps using text messaging to help stop smoking can almost double your chances of quitting, but about 90% of people using these apps fail to quit smoking after six months. Mobile health apps used in combination with a traditional stop-smoking programme may help smokers kick the habit.

Currently, there is little or no US-based mobile health technology research on diabetes, blood pressure or cholesterol management.

Statement authors reviewed mobile health technology randomised clinical trials and meta-analyses from the last decade. Most of the mobile health technology studies were short-term and limited in size. “Nevertheless, do not dismiss the possibility that these devices and apps can help you be heart healthy,” Burke says.

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