A woman looks at her smart watch to see her fitness data.
Smartphone apps make it easier for people to track their progress and hold themselves accountable. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Can a smartphone app save your life?

Not on its own, but an app could help you adopt a heart-healthy lifestyle that might reduce your risk of heart attack, stroke and heart disease, a new evidence review suggests.

People are better able to stick to a heart-healthy lifestyle when guided and encouraged by smartphone apps and Internet sites that help set goals and track progress, said lead researcher Dr. Ashkan Afshin. He’s an acting assistant professor of global health at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“Our results showed that both Internet-based and mobile-based intervention were effective in improving lifestyle behaviors including diet and physical activity over short term,” Afshin said.

“These interventions were also effective in achieving a modest weight loss over 3 to 12 months,” he added.

Afshin and his colleagues analyzed 224 previous studies published between 1990 and 2013, and found that:

  • People using Internet-based interventions ate better, became more active, lost weight, and cut down on their use of tobacco and alcohol.
  • Smartphone interventions (including apps, texts and voicemail messages) helped people increase their exercise and lose weight.

“Some features of these programs may increase their effectiveness,” Afshin said.

“For example, programs that have components such as goal-setting and self-monitoring and use multiple modes of communication and tailored messages tended to be more effective. We also found these programs were more effective if they included some interactions with health care providers,” he explained.

These smartphone apps make it easier for people to track their progress and hold themselves accountable, said Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum. She’s the director of women’s heart health for Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

Previously, people relied on pen and paper to track their progress. “We knew people who wrote things down tended to be better able to stick to a program,” Steinbaum said. “It’s really about taking control of your own life.”

Not only do apps make it easier to track progress, but they also make it easy to share that information with your doctor, she added.

“These apps are more effective if they include some interaction with a health care provider,” Steinbaum said.

“There is no harm in using an app without having your doctor’s consent, but we know when it is used along with your doctor as a tool for communication, it becomes more effective in helping you change your life,” she added.

Smartphone apps and websites also provide a cheap alternative for people who want to adopt healthy behaviors but can’t afford a gym membership or nutrition plan, said Dr. Martha Daviglus. She’s a spokesperson for the American Heart Association and a professor with the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago.

“Not everybody can pay for a gym. Not everybody can drive. Not everybody has a car,” Daviglus said. “But most people have phones, and most people have access to the Internet. Technology is now cheaper, and access is much more available.”

However, there’s still a lot of snake oil being sold in app stores, and people should be careful about choosing the right app, Steinbaum said.

Avoid any app that purports to accurately test blood sugar, blood pressure, cholesterol levels or anything else related to your current physical shape, she said.

“The apps that are helpful are the ones that teach you how to exercise, how to eat better, how to lose weight, how to monitor your lifestyle choices,” Steinbaum said. “Any app that is a testing app, do not buy into those. But things that help you monitor your behavior, the accountability apps, those are worth looking at.”

The review appears in the Journal of the American Heart Association.