Health apps are popular, but do they really improve our health?

By Alistair Gardiner
Published May 20, 2021

Key Takeaways

Research shows that more Americans are using health apps on their mobile devices than ever before. According to a recent survey, the number of health or fitness app users in the United States increased from 68.7 million in 2019 to 87.4 million in 2020, a 27% increase in just one year—and that number is expected to increase.

But do these mobile apps actually have any impact on our health? According to recent studies, the answer is a tentative yes. Research findings are not crystal clear when it comes to health apps’ effects on health, but some studies suggest they can have a positive impact on certain health-related behaviors.

Here’s what the latest research says about four different kinds of health apps.

Nutrition and healthy eating habits 

Healthy eating habits are vital for everyone, but they become particularly important as people approach middle age, when chronic disease prevention requires the most attention. Of course, there are plenty of apps to assist in these efforts. According to a review in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR) in May, evidence suggests that health apps designed to offer nutritional interventions to middle-aged and older adults tend to improve a range of health markers and clinical outcomes.

Researchers examined the findings of 70 studies that measured the efficacy of nutrition-focused health apps used by adults aged 40 and over, most of whom were patients with chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension. 

The authors wrote that health app interventions were “highly successful in significantly improving adherence to health behavior, Framingham CVD risk, dietary behavior, weight, and BMI.” Additionally, researchers noted that those in intervention groups typically saw positive improvements in measurements like waist circumference, LDL cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and HbA1c, compared with control groups.

However, the authors noted that the findings should be interpreted with caution, primarily due to the variability of the studies analyzed. For example, while improvements in fruit and vegetable consumption appeared more marked in control groups, only three studies included in the analysis measured this outcome. Likewise, many of the studies focused on other lifestyle factors beyond nutrition. 

Researchers concluded that while evidence supports the efficacy of health apps, the development of research frameworks is necessary in order to fill knowledge gaps and provide stronger evidence in this area.

Medication adherence

Failure to take medication in the correct way can lead to increased morbidity and render treatment ineffective. According to another JMIR review, it’s estimated that 20% to 50% of patients don’t take their medication properly. 

This prompted researchers to examine whether apps can help solve this problem. The review examined 11 studies published between 2000-2017, with sample sizes varying between 16 and 99 participants. 

Researchers found that seven of the studies provided evidence that using a mobile app can increase adherence to treatment. In fact, five of the studies found that an app improved medication adherence by 7% to 40%. They concluded that apps are effective in helping people to take their meds properly and that they are “an appropriate method for managing medication at home.”

Physical activity

Fitness apps, which aim to improve the user’s rates of physical activity, are among the most well-known category of health apps. According to one review, they could be a helpful way to get yourself into the habit of exercising regularly—but they’re certainly not the panacea to your fitness challenges.

Researchers examined the findings of six studies on these apps, measuring whether they increased the number of users’ daily steps. They found that those using fitness apps increased their number of daily steps in comparison to control groups, but only by an average of 476 steps.

Sensitivity analyses revealed that certain types of fitness apps were more effective than others. Specifically, researchers found that apps have a “significant positive effect on physical activity,” when they offer exercise programs that last up to 3 months and when they focus exclusively on physical activity, rather than a combination of health behaviors.

Overall, authors found “modest evidence” supporting the efficacy of fitness apps to increase physical activity—and those that were most effective provided short-term interventions, rather than sustained exercise programs.

Mental health

These days, advice on how to combat mental health issues is ubiquitous—could an app simplify things? According to a recent study, the answer might be yes.

Researchers examined the efficacy of a self-guided mental health app on a group of 84 university students experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety, in comparison to a control group of equal size, over the course of about 6 weeks. The app provided relaxation activities and mood-tracking.

At week 6, 83% of participants were still using the app at least once a week. Researchers found evidence that those using the app experienced reduced symptoms of depression, but weak evidence for reduced symptoms of anxiety.

Another review tangentially supported these findings. Researchers pooled data from seven meta-analyses, concluding that “apps for anxiety and depression hold great promise with clear clinical advantages,” however, more research is required to provide strong evidence. 

More evidence needed

While researchers found that many of the health apps examined produced promising results, a refrain of “further research is required” was attached to the conclusion of almost every study and review on the matter. The key may simply be finding the health app that works for you—one that helps you stick to your goals for the long term.

To learn about privacy risks associated with health apps, read How smartphone use can land doctors in water on MDLinx. 

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