Assessing the value of health-and-fitness apps

Written by by Jim Berger. Posted in April

This month I am taking a different approach to health, wellness, and outpatient physical/occupational therapy. I am going to explore the techie world better known as the “apps.”


We are all aware of the advancement in technology and the use of technology (smart phones, tablets, etc.). These items are the norm, and now for many our lifeline to the world in which we live. Almost everything we need to know is at our fingertips. If we want to find something, we google it. We use these devices to shop, to get a ride, to manage our days, to….

Our world of apps has grown significantly. According to Simple Statistics, the number of apps available for download as of June 2016 was two million for Apple users and 2.2 million for Android users. There appears to be an app for everyone and everything. Simple Statistics further reports that the five most popular Apple App Store categories in December 2016 by share of available apps were games 24.8%; business 9.96%; education 8.55%; lifestyle 8.44%, and entertainment 6.1%.

I decided to explore what was available in the industry that we represent and categories of medical and health and fitness. My first search, I typed in “Physical Therapy.” it resulted in a variety of apps that I put into subcategories: apps for individuals that are in school to become a therapist; apps to assist students in their preparation for their licensing board exam; apps for therapist to assist with ongoing training/education; apps for therapeutic exercises; and apps for treating (virtual treatment). I was a little overwhelmed. I feel my Heartland Rehabilitation Services clinics are very proactive and use technology as one of the tools in the toolbox, but to do therapy via virtual treatment. Wow! The Facetime approach to me just isn’t the same as the hands-on approach with individuals.

I then decided to look into health and fitness, since what we look to do is transition someone from therapy to wellness for life. I was overwhelmed at what came up in my search! I was presented with hundreds and hundreds of apps in the Health and Fitness category and its subcategories: healthy cooking, sleep and snooze, nutrition coaching, meditation and mind and body, exercise/workout, relaxing, calorie counting, running, sports training, and community/social.

My mind was spinning. Which one should I download? Which one would be better for me? How do I decide? Like most, I recall someone telling me I should get this app or that app because it really kept them on track for the goals they had set. Many of us do this; we rely on what others have shared about their experience and what it has done for them (weight loss, improved muscle tone, improved blood pressure, etc.).

I downloaded a few of the apps that friends told me about, and I downloaded a few other random apps. All the apps I downloaded were free. Most of the apps did the same thing but had a different look or positive motivators, pictures, and badges/recognitions for achievement. All the apps were simple to use in tracking calories, nutrition/food, exercise, and steps. Some of the apps had barcode scanners that gave more information about the product.

The key to many of these apps that track key metrics for me is based on information I entered. The concept of “GiGo” (Garbage in Garbage out) is so very important. If I was unrealistic in the information I entered, then the information that came out was not accurate or relevant to what I really wanted to achieve. Rule of thumb: whatever your goal is, whether to lose weight or increase your activity level, you have to be honest, accurate, and diligent with the information you put in. Guessing what you had to eat, the portion size, or the ingredients may work on occasion, but it won’t assist you in reaching your goals and plan. Forgetting to put in information also creates problems.

With apps for health and wellness, it may be easier to use ones that a friend recommends or one that you have gotten from someone in your medical/healthcare provider network. Commit to using it to achieve your goals, and you should have success.

If you have searched for an app to help with self-treating for physical therapy and injury or pain, you know there are quite a few. These apps, similar to exercise videos, aren’t bad. They do provide education on specific problems, for example low back pain. However, not all low back pain is the same. More important, the root cause of your low back pain is not addressed in the video.

The other key that is not addressed centers on being certain you are following the instruction properly. Are you in the correct position? Is the movement you are doing reaching the right end range, or are you going too far or not far enough? What is missing is the “IRL” (In Real Life) component—the hands-on, personal touch with a therapist, who instructs and guides you in form, range of motion, positioning, and more. If the clinician instructs you to follow through at home with certain movements or procedures, they have first assessed and identified that you have shown the correct skills/ability to do it. Don’t replace this important piece of therapy with an app.❦

Mercy Health snow winter 2018