And some types of apps may be more effective than others, according to the researchers.
If you're in the habit of checking your phone regularly, take note: It could actually improve your health, if you start using the right apps.
A new review of research on technology, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, found that people who take advantage of support and programs on smartphones or the internet are more likely to eat better, exercise more, and engage in other behaviors linked to health and longevity.
"Here we have the convenience of all these apps so you can exercise or you can eat healthier or quit smoking," says Martha Daviglus, MD, PhD, a spokesperson for the American Heart Association, who was not involved in the study. And even if the change isn't pronounced, "it's better to lose a few pounds than to lose none or to even increase your weight," Dr. Daviglus adds.
The authors of the new review paper evaluated more than 200 studies that had looked at the effect of different technologies on diet, exercise, weight, and tobacco and alcohol consumption. All of these factors play an enormous role in our risk for many diseases, including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, conditions which are almost as widespread today as cell phones.
In the new review study, the most common types of technology were apps, text, or voice messages and automated voice response systems. The review included research done over the past 23 years (so many of these technologies are now outdated). Overall, technology—new or old—had a positive effect on behaviors that influence health.
The quality of the studies varied, however, as did the magnitude of the effects. For instance, tech interventions could add as little as 1.5 minutes to your weekly exercise routine, or as much as 153 minutes. Only two of seven studies looking at quitting smoking found benefits.
Programs that proved most effective were those that incorporated goal setting and self-monitoring (such as recording how much you ate or weighed), and those that involved multiple forms of communication (like personal counseling and texts) and which carried individualized messages. The program which increased weekly physical activity by 153 minutes a week, for instance, sent customized motivational messages.
The technology was also more effective when paired with good old patient-doctor or patient-healthcare provider communication.
Most of the studies were very short-term, making it hard to know if they would be effective over the long time periods usually needed to make serious lifestyle changes. "They couldn't demonstrate if this really could work more than one year or only because it's the novelty, that people decide to try it and they get bored," says Dr. Daviglus, who is also a professor of medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The participants in the 224 studies also tended to be high on the motivation scale, one of many different factors likely to play into the success of any app or text or voice messaging system. "You can tell a 45-year-old who is otherwise healthy and is a smoker that smoking is bad for you and he will continue smoking," says Jeffrey Goldberger, MD chief of the cardiovascular division at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. "That 45-year-old comes into the hospital with a heart attack and all of a sudden their motivation to stop smoking changes."
These days, though, there's likely to be an app to motivate you whoever you are. "With the new technology today, you cannot believe the things that we can do," says Dr. Daviglus.
Look for programs that urge you to set goals, are tailored to who you are, and which make you accountable for your behavior by recording what you eat or how many steps you take. It's worth asking your doctor for recommendations, too. She may be able to suggest apps that work best for your health needs.