For those of us hoping to lose weight while juggling a busy schedule, opening up an app on our smartphone may seem a little too convenient. Still, a growing body of evidence suggests that more people than ever are uploading health apps and using them. In her role as a health reporter, ideastream's Sarah Jane Tribble regularly uses exercise and healthy eating apps. She talks with Morning Edition Host Rick Jackson and offers us some real-life perspective from the experts on how helpful they really are at helping people lose weight.
About 45 percent of U.S. adults have a smart phone, the kind where you can check your e-mail, browse the internet and upload apps.
Maeve Duggan, who is a research assistant with the Pew Internet Project in Washington D.C., said that the popularity of smartphones was enough for their organization to conduct a study asking one main question:
"We wanted to see how people were using information how people are using resources they already had at their fingertips for health information," Duggan says.
Pew found that people were uploading and even getting text messages from the healthy living apps on their phones.
"We found that 19 percent of smart phone owners had a health app on their phone and that diet and exercise apps were actually the most popular. And another nine percent of cell phone owners received text updates about health information," Duggan says.
RICK: But does having the apps on a smartphone make people healthier? Are people actually exercising more, eating healthier or losing weight because of the apps?
SARAH: We can't really tell from this study.
And this is what was bugging me as I set out to report this story. So, I started out by testing myself. I downloaded a handful of healthy eating and exercise apps to my cell phone earlier this summer with the goal of testing them and possibly losing a few pounds.
Now, admittedly, I am a health reporter and I do like challenges to eat healthy and exercise. So using these apps didn't seem too daunting.
RICK: How did you know which apps to download and where did you find them?
SARAH: I actually went to the computer and Googled health eating and exercise apps. Some top five lists came up. So I went to my iPhone icon tagged App Store and started searching for those names. I also typed "healthy eating" in the search field.
RICK: What did you find?
SARAH: I uploaded the Cleveland Clinic's LetsMoveIt app and another popular exercise app called MapMyRun. I also paid for an app called Fooducate and signed up for a few healthy eating apps including eaTipster, a Canadian-based wellness app and Harvest, a sort of grocery-shopper helper.
Initially, it was fun. I used Fooducate to scan the bar codes on food in my pantry and found that some items have far more sodium and sugar content that I need to have for a healthy diet. And I discovered all sorts of tricks about buying and storing fruits in vegetables on Harvest.
RICK: What do you mean?
For example, if I pull up the app right now and type in, say, potatoes, it tells me…
Yes, I should buy ones that are firm and that I should store them in a dark and dry place. But look here, I didn't know this, it says I should not store my potatoes by onions because it causes them to go bad more quickly.
But as the weeks wore one, I found myself not really using any of the apps consistently.
RICK: That seems like a common problem: You get excited about losing weight and being healthier, get started and then lose steam.
SARAH: Right, so I called Tony Crimaldi, who is an app developer for the Cleveland Clinic. He told me that the Clinic's most popular app is one called Today for the iPad. There have been more than 6,000 downloads of it since launching it at the beginning of March.
TONY: We built in an analytics engine into the application so I am able to go in and see what people are doing in the application, so where do they go in, what areas do they tap of the application, how long do they spend in the application.
Crimaldi also gets feedback as to how many users are male and female and their ages. BUT he can't tell if people actually getting healthier after beginning to use the app.
SARAH: People producing these apps and studying them say it's really up to the individual to track whether they are getting healthier. But one thing we do know in a general way is that people who track their health are more aware of their health. At the least, these apps for exercise and diet keep that awareness at the fore front of their minds.
RICK: And was that the case for you during your summer experiment?
SARAH: I think it was. For example, every evening about 5:30 I get an text alert from the app eaTipster with a dietician-approved healthy eating tip. Certainly, I know that eating breakfast every day is a great way to keep my weight in check. But, you know, it's nice to have that affirmation as well.
RICK: ideastream Health Reporter Sarah Jane Tribble, thanks.