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Apps, texts, and sensors for boosting heart health: Do they help?


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Mobile health technologies show some promise for motivating people to make healthy choices for their heart.

The number of health-related apps for mobile devices has exploded in recent years. According to one estimate, online services (mainly iTunes and Google Play) feature more than 165,000 of these downloadable software programs. One in five American adults with a smartphone has at least one of these digital tools, many of which focus on factors related to heart health.

The most popular ones monitor physical activity. Others aim to help you lose weight, monitor your blood pressure, manage your diabetes, or quit smoking. But can using these apps really make a difference? That’s hard to say, as the evidence about their effectiveness is limited, according to an American Heart Association (AHA) statement that reviewed current research on mobile health (known as mHealth) technologies related to cardiovascular health. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give them a shot, however.

“Anything that can promote engagement around healthy behaviors is a good idea,” says Dr. Kevin King, a cardiologist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Some apps require you to enter information (for example, what you ate or your blood pressure reading). Others work with sensors (also called fitness monitors), small devices you wear on your body to track your steps or other activity; you can then sync this information to the fitness app on your smartphone. In general, these information-gathering apps work well for highly motivated people, says Dr. King. When you first start using them, the novelty of entering and tracking information can be very engaging. However, sustaining that behavior over the long haul can be a challenge, he notes.

Other apps deliver reminders or information through text messages. A recent Australian study (not included in the AHA review) showed measurable health benefits from targeted text messages. These types of reminders could be particularly helpful if they are delivered during moments of weakness, to help keep people on track with their eating and exercise goals, says Dr. King.

Text tips from your phone?

Getting encouraging texts about lifestyle changes may help boost heart health, according to a study of 700 people with heart disease.

Half of the people were randomly assigned to receive four text messages weekly on their cellphones, in addition to their standard care. The semi-personalized texts encouraged them to exercise more, eat less salt, and make other heart-healthy lifestyle changes. The other participants received only usual care.

At the end of the six-month study, people who got the text messages had reduced their harmful LDL cholesterol, blood pressure, and body mass index. The findings were published in the Sept. 22, 2015, Journal of the American Medical Association.

Current evidence on mHealth technologies

The AHA statement, published in the August 14 Circulation, reviewed 69 studies that evaluated how mobile technologies could improve risk factors related to heart disease. Here’s a summary of the main findings:

Weight loss. People who used weight-loss apps or mHealth tools in addition to a comprehensive weight-loss program were more successful over the short term compared with people who tried to lose weight on their own. But there’s no data about whether people kept weight off beyond 12 months.

Physical activity. People who used online programs (including Web-based tutorials or networking opportunities) boosted their physical activity more than those who didn’t use such tools. But there hasn’t been enough research to show whether wearing a device to monitor physical activity actually helps you move more.

Smoking cessation. Mobile health apps used together with a traditional quit-smoking program may help smokers kick the habit. In one study, about 11% of those using text messaging quit (compared with 5% of control subjects). However, about 90% of people using these apps fail to quit smoking after six months.

As for mHealth technologies for improving blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes, there’s little or no available evidence so far about their effectiveness.

Tips for choosing m Health tools

The overwhelming number of apps and fitness trackers available makes choosing one a challenge. Begin by asking a trusted health care provider, fitness instructor, registered dietitian, or similar expert for a recommendation. Look for those sponsored or created by established health advocacy groups, medical organizations, or universities, as they’re more likely to feature evidence-based information and advice.

Partners HealthCare, the Boston-based network of hospitals and physicians that includes Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital, created a website devoted to personal health tracking (www.wellocracy.com). It features handy charts that compare different types of apps and wearable activity devices.

Many apps are free or inexpensive (a few dollars), so there’s little downside to downloading several. If you find one that’s easy to use, try it out for a few days or weeks. Wearable devices that track your movement are a bigger investment, with prices ranging from $30 to $250.

One final note: Be sure to read the “terms of use” or privacy agreement associated with any app or device. It contains important information about how your personal data will be used. Look for this on the company’s website.

Posted by: Dr.Health

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