Heart Health – There’s an app for that!

by Leigh on November 19, 2015

smartphone heart health appYou and your smartphone most likely already have something of a love affair, but new research suggests that your phone might actually be good for your heart.

A clinical trial with the rather demanding name Make Better Choices 2 (MBC2) recently revealed results after 9 months. In this trial, 204 people with four specific behaviours linked to poorer heart health used an app and received coaching intended to create healthy habits to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. Participants could change one behaviour at a time, or choose to modify several unhealthy habits at once.

The four factors that this app looked at helping people to change were:

  • Eating fewer than 5 servings of fruits or vegetables a day
  • Obtaining over 8% of calories from saturated fat
  • Engaging in less than an hour of moderate/vigorous physical activity a day
  • Spending more than 90 minutes a day in sedentary leisure activity (such as watching TV, searching the internet, or playing video games).

One of the problems we face when considering making healthy changes is knowing whether to focus first on diet or exercise, or whether to try to tackle both simultaneously. Trying to change too many things all at once can leave us feeling overwhelmed, while changing diet or exercise alone might not give us the gains we want quickly enough, causing us to lose motivation.

What the results of this latest trial show is that it is possible to make multiple changes if supported by an app and a behaviour coach. The people volunteering for this trial were asked to record their food intake on a Palm Pilot and to wear a device to monitor their activity level. The information from these devices was then sent to a behaviour coach who doled out monetary rewards ($175 if certain targets were met).

The interesting thing in this study was that even after the volunteers stopped being paid for the healthy behaviours, they continued to perform those new healthy habits at about half the rate. Overall, the results showed that patients:

  • Reduced screen-time by around 2 hours a day
  • Increased intake of fruits or vegetables by six servings a day
  • Reduced saturated fat intake by 3.7%
  • Increased physical activity by 15 minutes a day.

In contrast, similar people in a control group, who received an app and coaching about stress management did not have these improvements in diet and exercise. As health-related apps increase in availability and scope, there is a worry that consumers may be misled into purchasing products with no scientific foundation.

Apps are not classed as medical devices by the US Food and Drug Administration, meaning that they are not subject to regulation regarding their health claims or content. Apps based on clinical trial data are few and far between, but without such data it is difficult to know how effective the app will be for helping people change unhealthy habits into healthy behaviours.

The app in this study does not appear to be effective on its own, with the backup behaviour coaching seeming to be the key to successfully making healthy changes. In the future, those looking to develop effective smartphone apps will likely incorporate this behavioural coaching into the app itself, with some companies, such as Ayogo, already using psychological research to design smarter apps that can help us make healthier choices not only for our hearts, but for a range of health issues.

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