September 7, 2016

Online Programs Improve Health

Programs and apps that set and monitor health goals can be helpful. Of course, you do have to put down your phone and use them.

Despite all the negative press about the amount of time we spend sitting in front of computers or gazing at mobile devices, they can actually improve people’s health — as long as sitting and looking at them isn’t all you’re doing.

People are more likely to adopt heart-healthy practices when they receive electronic guidance and encouragement. A review of over 200 studies found that whether it comes from computer software, cell phones or other mobile devices, technology can inspire changes to health behaviors.

The most effective programs help goal-setting and self-monitoring, and use multiple modes of communication with messages tailored to individuals' goals.

Those who participated in Internet interventions ate healthier diets, became more physically active, lost weight and/or body fat and cut back on the use of tobacco and alcohol. People who used smartphone apps or interventions in which they received text or voicemail messages also lost weight or body fat and increased their physical activity.

The most effective programs encourage goal-setting and self-monitoring, and use multiple modes of communication with messages tailored to individuals' goals. “We also found these programs were more effective if they included some interactions with healthcare providers,” Ashkan Afshin, MD, lead author of the study, said in a statement.

These types of interventions could prove to be a helpful backup for primary care doctors as a way to encourage their patients to change negative lifestyle behaviors that increase the risk of chronic diseases, like cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

The review does have its limitations: the available research was limited and, for the most part, short-term — the Internet- and mobile-based programs were followed over a range of three to 12 months. Also, most of the studies were done in high-income countries with participants who were more highly educated and motivated than the general population.

So future research should focus on the long-term effectiveness of these technological interventions in various population groups and on which types of strategies are best at increasing adherence.

At the very least, Internet and mobile device programs that help you set goals and stick to them goals seem to be very supportive. It can't hurt to try one — or several — to encourage eating better and exercising more.

The study is published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
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