Health apps, also called mobile health apps or mHealth, have experienced a significant increase in popularity in the last few years. According to a report by the Health Well Foundation, the USA alone has more than 60 million users of health apps. The World Health Organization reports that over 90 of the organization’s 112 member nations report at least one health app in their country.
However, “health app” is a very broad category. There are generally three types of apps in this category:
Apps for tracking diet and nutrition
Apps for tracking exercise and physical activity
Apps for self-monitoring chronic conditions
The mass majority of applications have only one of these features, though a few combine two or all three. There are currently tens of thousands such apps available in the market. However, the question arises: What is the effectiveness of health apps?
Peer-reviewed scientific research into health applications is limited, but the current body of scientific literature seems to suggest that health apps do, in fact, help an individual in reaching their health goal or keeping track of their health situation.
A research by psychologists Gary Bennett and Michele Lanpher Patel, published in the journal JMIR mHealth and uHealth, divided 105 study participants into three different groups. The three groups were told to use a free health app to record their daily food intake and weight.
Within three months, participants across all three groups had lost significant amounts of weight. It was found that the participants who were most consistent in daily logging their food intake and weight lost the most weight. The researchers suggested that monitoring their own food intake along with their weight not only gave them the motivation to cut down on food, it also showed them where to cut down and which macronutrients to consume less of.
JMIR Publications has also published another research in which 726 participants were surveyed about their use of exercise apps. The participants were divided into three backgrounds: those who never used exercise apps, those who used exercise apps at some point but discontinued, and those who are currently using exercise apps.
The study conclusively found that app users were more likely to exercise consistently than people who don’t use exercise apps. The research also suggests that exercise apps help users the barriers to exercise such as procrastination and lack of motivation.
Another study, conducted by UBC Okanagan’s School of Health and Exercise Sciences assistant professor Mary Jung, concluded that personalized fitness apps, such as those with individualized health goals and personal coaching, are much more effective in helping users achieve their health goals.
When it comes to the apps that help users self-monitor chronic conditions, however, scientific literature is a bit more complex. The research conducted so far has largely been conducted with limited samples, so the data from such research cannot be taken as conclusive. However, the research does seem to suggest that self-management among patients of chronic diseases can be enhanced via use of health apps.
For example a study by researchers at Curtin University, published in the NCBI journal, tentatively suggests that consistent self-monitoring through health apps can help enhance the self-management of patients suffering from chronic diseases such as diabetes, clinical depression, insomnia etc.
In conclusion the scientific literature so far, conclusively in some cases and tentatively in others, states that health applications do help users to reach their health and fitness goals.