There are more than 500,000 health apps available, and there are numerous wearable devices, like Fitbits and Jawbones. What is right for you? Alex Tursi, social media strategist at the UVM Medical Center, pinpoints what to look for in a health app or wearable in this interview. Listen at the link below or read the transcript that follows.

UVM Medical Center: Let’s face it. If you’re going to be healthy, you have to get some type of exercise. I don’t need to recite all the studies that prove it’s the key to lowering your risk of chronic disease and increasing your overall quality of life. What I am going to do today is clue you in on some wearable devices, like Fitbits, and mobile apps that can help you get started and stay on track with whatever kind of exercise you choose to do. Actually, I’m not going to do that. Our guest Alex Tursi is. She’s the manager of social media at the UVM Medical Center and has tips today on how you can figure out what to look for when choosing among the 50,000 healthcare apps out there, and she’ll talk about a few of them that are recommended by experts. Welcome, Alex.

Alex Tursi: Thank you for having me on the show.

UVM Medical Center: First of all, let’s address that question of how do you know what’s any good.

Alex Tursi: As you said, there are thousands of apps out there, and we have about 500 million people who are using these apps on a daily basis, so there’s a lot to sift through. Frankly speaking, when it comes to health apps, a lot of the apps that are out there are not scientifically validated. So there are some things that people who are listening will want to know as they are selecting an app to make sure that it’s going to be one that works for them and that it’s trustworthy.

Really, you want to focus on an app that’s going to help you change a habit or behavior that you have. We know here that changing a habit is really the only way to ensure that you engage in a healthy lifestyle. Whether that’s adding walking to your day or cutting out a certain unhealthy food, little things add up to big change.

As you are evaluating an app, you want to see first, can you tailor the options to you and who you are. For example, can you integrate your BMI information into the app?

UVM Medical Center: Which is body mass index.

Alex Tursi: Exactly. So that as you’re using the app, you can get feedback on how you are doing. So what other features does it have that allow you to input information about yourself, and then as you’re using it, see how that affects your own body?

Another thing to look at is fixed-term experience. A lot of people when they download an app, they’ll use it for a couple days and then they’ll forget about it. So a lot of apps that I would recommend using let you focus on a fixed-term experience, like training for a 5K or doing a 30-day healthy eating challenge, something that has a time limit on it so that you’re more compelled to stick with it over a fixed period of time. And then you can of course download newer apps after that to keep yourself going.

Another thing to think about is how easy is it to input data information into the app. Is it really hard to do? Because if it is, then you probably aren’t going to stick with it. So you want something that’s really easy and simple to use and that fits your lifestyle and how busy you are.

Another thing I think is really important … because a lot of the apps out there are self-monitoring apps, so really the onus is on you to actually use them. So I like apps that offer a pop-up or a reminder so that you’re more likely to actually engage with it. For example, I use the Runkeeper app for running. What that will do is if I haven’t run for a couple days, it will say, “Hey, Alex. You ran a couple times last week, or you ran at this time last week. Do you want to do it again?”

UVM Medical Center:     You’re kidding me.

Alex Tursi: I’m not kidding you. So it actually is kind of a little bit of a coach and a little bit of a nudge tool to get you to actually do the work and remind you, “Oh, yeah. I did do that last week. I should probably do it again this week.” That’s a really nice feature.

And then finally, a cue to action, something like a pop-up reminder in your calendar to go for a walk or to pick up food for a new healthy recipe you’re looking to do, or get together with friends for some social well-being. Inputting it into actually the things that you use every day, like your office calendar or your email calendar, so again, you’re reminded. This creates an environment around the app so that you are more likely to stay motivated and use it.

UVM Medical Center: How many of these apps have that component where you can clue in your friends that you’re doing stuff to get support or where you can hook up with other people, that sort of more social aspect, or is that all online?

Alex Tursi: We know that peer support and competition are excellent motivation tools for certain people. If that’s something you’re interested in, a lot of the apps have started to integrate this, and a lot of apps are just built around that concept in and of itself. For example, Fitocracy is an app that you can use for working out that allows you to friend and follow other people, and you can either compete with one another or engage in challenges with one another. You mentioned wearables a little bit earlier. The Fitbit, which is probably the most well-known and popular of wearables, actually allows you to be part of an online community where you can invite friends, develop groups, go on walks together, earn badges together. The science shows that social support clearly is something that does affect in a positive way behavior change, so there are a lot of apps out there that will allow you to do that and engage with friends.

UVM Medical Center: I was reading that just generally speaking as a category, healthcare apps are considered to be useful. They don’t help with every single healthcare problem, but they are useful.

Alex Tursi: They are very useful. Self-monitoring is a very powerful thing to do. Even for people who are out there who have never tried an app before or don’t think it’s for them, what I would recommend doing is just trying one for a week and really benchmarking what you do. One app out there called MyFitnessPal, which is a diet tracking and exercise tracking tool, just allows you to have a food diary and an exercise diary. Just doing that for one week is a huge eye-opener when it comes to what you’re actually eating, because I think a lot of the time we don’t really know that we’re eating as much as we are or maybe moving as little as we are. I tried the Fitbit myself last year, and I was surprised by how little I was actually moving during the work day. Even though I do exercise regularly, I was finding that I had a lot of sedentary behavior during the day. We know that moving as often as you can during the day is much more important than having one very intense workout, so that was a huge wake-up call. So even trying these tools out for a little period of time is really a good tool to have some knowledge about where you rank and what you’re doing.

UVM Medical Center: Now we’re going to spend a little time taking a look at a couple of them. What have we got up first, Alex?

Alex Tursi: The first app we’re going to look at today is a diet and exercise tracking tool called MyFitnessPal. I actually spoke to a number of our family medicine doctors here at the UVM Medical Center to see which tools they recommend to patients, and this was one of them. That’s a good reminder that it’s important to talk to your doctor or your provider about apps and how you use them, just to ensure that you’re choosing one that they would endorse and support.

UVM Medical Center: So you got your phone out. We’re looking at your iPhone screen.

Alex Tursi: What you see here, this is MyFitnessPal. What it will let you do is you can input your BMI information.

UVM Medical Center: That’s your height, your weight.

Alex Tursi: Your height and your weight. Then it will ask you, “Do you want to maintain your weight? Do you want to lose weight?” And it will come up with a calorie goal for you. You can see my calorie goal right here is 1700 calories a day. Then what I can do is I can input food. I can choose breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and then when I do that, I can search for the food I ate. For example, this morning I had a yogurt.

UVM Medical Center: Are you telling the truth?

Alex Tursi: I’m telling the truth. You’ll see everything else I ate in here, too. I had coffee with some half and half in it. What you’ll do is you can search for your food, and you can search for brand names, etc. and what it will do is it will bring up the serving information about it, the nutritional facts, so how many calories, carbs, fat, protein, etc. And then I can have the number of servings that I had, I had one serving of yogurt. I can add that to my food diary, and you will see that if I go back to the home screen, it subtracts that calorie amount from my overall calorie goal.

UVM Medical Center: Oh, and so then you know you can still eat 1000 calories.

Alex Tursi: Exactly. It helps me track during the day how I’m doing towards my calorie goal, so that as I’m eating … Let’s say I have a big breakfast, for example. I might say, “Okay, I had a large breakfast. Maybe I’ll be a little bit more careful about my other meals.” Or again, when I was talking about benchmarking, I might have looked back at the end of the day and said, “Oh, I had 1000 calories in snacks.” So that could be a real area that I could target for behavior change. As you start to input more information in this and gather more information about yourself, it’ll help you make those kind of decisions about what personally works best for you in terms of modifying your diet.

UVM Medical Center: It seems to me it’s not difficult to input the information.

Alex Tursi: No.

UVM Medical Center: But you can get so much information out of it.

Alex Tursi: You can get so much. There are 600 million different food data points in this app. I think criticism of food tracking apps in the past has been like, “My food’s not in there.” So MyFitnessPal has done a lot to make sure that they include all that information. What’s also cool is that you can actually scan barcodes on foods, so that you can scan what you’re eating, it will bring up the brand, the serving information, etc. And what it will do for foods you eat regularly is it’ll add them to your favorites. I have a yogurt every morning for breakfast, so it will most likely come up often on my app that I have that, so I can very quickly add it. They make it very simple.

You can also add exercise in. You can choose cardio or strength exercise, then search for the type of exercise you did. I went for a walk this morning, for example. Then it will calculate the calorie burned information for that, so during the day you’re constantly getting a read out.

UVM Medical Center: That’s quite amazing. Folks, you can’t see it, but just little touches here and there. It’s not complicated to figure out.

Alex Tursi:  No. The user interface is very simple to use, which is really great. It’s super easy. What’s nice about MyFitnessPal, too, is that it integrates with a lot of other apps, exercise apps like RunKeeper, a member of the family … For those who are familiar with the Under Armour brand, they own MyFitnessPal, and a number of their different fitness apps are integrated with this so that you can constantly have information feeding into it. Fitbit is integrated as well.

UVM Medical Center: That’s amazing.

Alex Tursi: That makes everything super easy, instead of having to worry about, “What do I do with my wearable and these apps I have and integrating information?”

UVM Medical Center: So one less excuse, folks. They make it easy for you. What do we have up next as we take a look at some healthcare apps with Alex Tursi?

Alex Tursi: A few other apps for those people who are interested in food that are recommended by our doctors are FoodKeeper, which is a great one for food safety if that’s something that’s of concern to people. Another one is called Dirty Dozen. That’s from the Environmental Working Group, and that’ll just tell you information about healthy fruits and vegetables to eat in terms of pesticides and whatnot. So that’s in kind of the food group.

For those looking to engage in exercise, one interesting app that was recommended by one of our doctors is Bodyweight Training: You Are Your Own Gym. This app has a cost associated with it. It’s $4.99. What it does, it has 200 plus different exercise routines you can just do, no gym equipment necessary, which I think is really attractive to people who might be busy or might not be interested in investing in a gym membership, or who are just starting to engage in fitness and want to take it slow and easy and do what’s achievable. This app offers 2 to 36-minute workouts, so again, no excuse. Everyone can fit in, hopefully, 2 minutes of a workout. And just a really great tool to lead you through the exercises. You can see somebody doing them and ensure that you’re doing them correctly. Again, that’s why it’s important to talk to your provider about an exercise app because you do want to ensure that you are performing the moves in the correct manner so you don’t injure yourself. So that’s a great one.

For those who are more interested in dealing with stress management and relaxing and calming down, one of the number one apps for that is Calm. It’s meditation to relax, focus, and sleep better. This is free. What it will do is it will lead you through guided meditations. They have sleep stories, nature sounds.

UVM Medical Center: You mean like bedtime stories?

Alex Tursi: Exactly, bedtime stories for adults. So for those for whom sleep is a real major issue, and we know that sleep has such a huge effect. A lot of studies have linked poor sleep to obesity and being overweight, so sleep is a very important thing. This is a tool that is meant to help you kind of take a step back, calm, relax, and deal with the stress in your life. It has a series of guided meditations, again, from 2 minutes to 25 minutes, so whatever your lifestyle and schedule is like, you can find time for it. It’s also great for beginners, intermediate, and advanced. There’s something for everything with this.

UVM Medical Center: One of the themes that I’m picking up on here listening is that it doesn’t need to be Mount Everest. A lot of people, I think, when they decide, “I’ve got to lose weight,” or “I’ve got to start exercising,” it’s like, “I have to go full bore with everything from day one,” and that’s hard to maintain. A lot of these seem to help you just take a little step, get a win, as we say, and then encourage you to keep going.

Alex Tursi: Exactly, and it’s all about at the end of the day integrating this into your lifestyle. Can you go from being more sedentary like I was in my office to taking a walk 15 minutes a day during lunch or before work or after work? That’s kind of an easy, simple, achievable thing to do, and a lot of these apps will help you do that and provide you with the feedback you need to keep going, and some of the motivation you need to keep going.

UVM Medical Center: I’m afraid to say we’ll have to leave it there. This has been great advice from Alex Tursi. If you want to really explore and do the best job picking something, as Alex said earlier, talking to your provider about it is a good place to start. They can connect you with some other reliable sources of information about it.

Alex, I want to thank you very much. She’s our manager of social media here at the UVM Medical Center, all-around great person. Thanks very much for joining us.

Alex Tursi: Thank you.

UVM Medical Center: For more information on wellness and fitness and all that stuff, you can go to our website, which is uvmhealth.org/medcenter, and search on wellness. We have free classes, we have lots of recipes, we have other things so we can help support you being as healthy as possible.

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