Dr Christian: The low-down on health apps

Health & Fitness

Dr Christian: The low-down on health apps

Forget catching Pokémon, apps can give you a smaller waist, better sleep and a cheerier mood. Here’s Dr Christian’s assessment…

People like numbers and targets, so apps can be a good way of setting goals to be healthier and monitor progress. They reveal the reality of what we’re eating or how much we’re moving, too.

They’re new, so some argue there isn’t much evidence behind how effective they are, but that doesn’t matter – if an app helps you get to the gym, that’s your evidence!

Others warn they can make you health obsessed, but if you’re going to obsess about health, you don’t need an app – you can obsessively Google symptoms. Being interested in your health is a good thing – just choose the right apps.

Activity Apps

Some track distance and speed for walking, running and cycling, help you set goals and allow other app users to encourage you; others simply count steps.

Research has shown that these apps are just as accurate as expensive wearable wristbands at tracking movement. Other apps teach you exercises and take you through circuits.

DOWNLOAD:

  • For tracking: STRAVA or MAP MY RUN.
  • For workouts: 7 or SWORKIT LITE.

Stop Smoking

Research has shown that apps that send motivational texts to help you quit smoking can almost double your success rate at quitting.

I wouldn’t rely solely on an app to kick a 40-a-day habit, though – the research also found that around 90 per cent of people who used them were smoking again after six months. Use it as part of your quitting kit. Anything is worth a go when it comes to quitting smoking.

DOWNLOAD: NHS SMOKEFREE.

Food Tracking

Apps are a good way to get a reality check and eat more mindfully. They often also alert you to how many calories you’re eating compared to how many you’re burning as they tie in activity, too.

People tend to overestimate calories exercise burns more in perspective are helpful. Often you can talk to other slimmers via an app for group support, too. But remember, though, a healthy interest is good, but restricting food intake and being very controlling isn’t.

DOWNLOAD:

  • For easy tracking: MY FITNESS PAL.
  • For dieting: LOSE IT.

Periods & Fertility

Period trackers predict your monthly due date and duration and help you understand and manage symptoms. I’m not convinced they’re helpful – either periods are regular (so you know when they’re coming), or they’re not. If you’re worried about irregular periods, visit your GP.

With fertility apps, I can understand why women want to learn a bit more about when they’re most fertile, but your fertile days aren’t that narrow a window, otherwise the human race would have died out long ago! Just have sex every couple of days – it’s normal to take a year to conceive.

I worry these apps could feed into fertility anxieties; if you had sex when your app said you were fertile and you’re still not pregnant, that could make you feel worse.

DOWNLOAD: CLUE – to track periods and fertility. The information goes to scientists studying women’s health.

Mood

Sadly, one in 10 patients with mental health issues in England is now waiting more than a year to get any treatment. Apps to help things like anxiety, low mood and panic are definitely not a replacement for therapy, but if you’re on a waiting list they can be can be helpful.

We know that keeping mood diaries, learning cognitive behavioural therapy techniques and mindfulness are all very beneficial to mental health – and they’re all in apps now. Look at who created the app (many are created by psychiatrists or university psychologists). And even if you don’t have mental health issues, mindfulness can be very helpful.

DOWNLOAD:

  • For mindfulness: HEADSPACE.
  • For anxiety: SAM.
  • For phobias and fear: PHOBIA FREE.

Pregnancy

These provide information about your baby’s development (for example – this week, it’s the size of a lemon or its eyelids are forming), checklists on the stages, and calendars to note symptoms, weight gain and appointments.

People aren’t terribly informed and there’s a lot to learn, so little doses every day in a free or cheap app is fine, as long as they aren’t diagnosing or frightening you.

DOWNLOAD: BABYCENTRE - for development updates, tips and name ideas.

Sleep

Many apps claim to track when you’re in various sleep states based on recording how much you’re moving. Movement is only part of the picture, though. The only way to truly track sleep is to record brain waves – and no app can do that.

Also, if you have a partner or a dog in the bed – as I do – every time the dog has a scratch, it’ll think you’re thrashing around! Using phones in the bedroom is a terrible idea if you have sleep problems. The only apps I think could be helpful are ones that learn about your sleep issues (eg. trouble dropping off, being very wakeful), then provide strategies to help, created by experts

DOWNLOAD: SLEEPIO - for personalised techniques to sort your sleep problem.

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