Be Fit For Life

with Ellen Cohen-Kaplan

The potential health benefits of smartphone apps

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An interesting article in today’s New York Times magazine looked at how certain apps can ultimately improve our overall health and well-being. Researchers found that young people kept more detailed and accurate information within an app on a mobile device than when asked by a professional to keep written notes . A variety of health apps are available that make it easy  to record recent check-ups, symptoms of menstrual cycles, and ultimately, put us in better control of their own health maintenance. When doctors ask you to record symptoms with pen and paper, it can often feel like homework, and may be hastily done at the last minute.  Since we are often looking at our smartphones, and they’re with us 24/7, we are more likely to record events as they happen, highly improving accuracy.

Ida Tin is the inventor of an app called Clue which is used to track and record menstrual cycles and their accompanying symptoms. Besides the obvious preparation of having the right items with you as needed, users can also be sure to get enough sleep, schedule less busy days, or be prepared for the cramps and mood swings that may accompany their periods. “She hopes that the app will eventually be able to do its own studies, publish findings and loop them back into the app. For example, Clue could recommend users who report high menstrual irregularity to talk to their physicians about polycystic-ovary syndrome, a common (but often hard to detect) disorder that can contribute to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.”

For more details, read the whole article at

Although these apps strive to maintain strict privacy and security,  we have to assess the trade-offs of new technology. If there’s a data breach, which has proved to be common even with close scrutiny to data security, much of this sensitive information could be shared without our permission.  However, the collection of real-time data from an enormous amount of subjects can really aid research. The data stored on your smartphone can ultimately lead to improvements in treatment, procedures and medication that positively affect health policies.

If you own an iPhone, did you know that without knowing it, you probably already have health data collected about you that you didn’t necessarily program in? Look at your iPhone, and find the heart icon search that says “health” under it. If you click on the icon and go to “fitness” it may already have data about how many steps you’ve taken, flights of stairs you’ve climbed, your workouts, etc. I find this both exciting and a little creepy!  In addition, it can measure cycling distance, exercise minutes, stand hours, and other activities. There are also categories for nutrition, reproductive health, sleep, body measurements, and vital signs. Certain data must be entered to get readings, but other information is automatically measured as long as you are carrying your iPhone on you. This presents unique dilemmas for data collection if you’re sleeping and other activities like swimming.  But, the fact of the matter remains, your iPhone can hold so much more data and already IS recording so much information that a typical doctor’s office visit may miss.

We already outsource so much of our memory to our smartphones.  Do you remember as many friends’ and family members’ phone numbers as you used to?  There is no need to since we can store them in  favorites or in your address book.  Do you remember your schedule or do you have alerts to remind you of upcoming events? I know of many other examples where I depend on my device instead of my memory to tell me what to do next, above and beyond the expected shopping  or “to do” lists.

So, with over 11,000 steps today, 31 flights climbed, 8 bike miles ridden, I will fall happily into bed knowing fairly accurately what my body did today. Two huge benefits of these apps are motivating oneself to move at least 10,000 steps a day, and using real time to record important health data about our bodies. We can use this data to report to our health care providers, or more importantly to track our own fitness, pain, or bodily reactions to our lifestyles.

The coming trend is to be much more self-aware, and take charge of our own health. Just this week, a client came to me saying that she had an MRI, and the doctor said “With this degree of spinal stenosis, you should definitely have back surgery. I have an opening in 3 weeks.” The caveat is that she takes zumba classes, walks daily, has an extremely active schedule including hiking and regularly flying across the country to see her children and grandchildren. Besides being too busy to have back surgery, she doesn’t need it and she’s wise enough to know that!  The determinations and decisions made by our doctors are secondary to what we know is best for our bodies. Apps can help us get there by putting us back in charge, and making us more aware of how our bodies are responding to the food, activity, environment, and amount of sleep that we experience daily.

Here are some useful apps you may want to explore:

  • Mapmyrun, ride, or any other activities you can program
  • Fitness Buddy – exercise videos, programs, summary of exercise
  • myfitnesspal- workouts, logging exercise, goal setting
  • Runmeter – logs running routines, distance and routes
  • Sleep time – logs sleep time, what influences your sleep, alarms
  • Steps – logs amount of steps taken each day
  • Azumio  – instant heart rate monitor

These are a few I use and know of, but by no means is this a comprehensive list. Just go to your app store, key in health and fitness apps, and you won’t believe the number of options that appear.

The wave of the future is to use real time data to make better health policies for all, using information from millions of people who use these apps.  Instead of feeling bad about sharing our personal data in cyberspace,  we can take some solace in knowing that, someday, this technology may help us live happier, healthier lives!

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