Written by Caitlin Schille

Health apps for smartphones are quite prevalent. A quick browse of the health and fitness section in the app store will show everything from the “Pacer” app to track your steps and active minutes to the “MyFitnessPal” app to track your calories and food intake. These apps are popular and increasingly accurate in tracking various metrics. But are they effective in helping us be healthier?

One recent study from Duke University says no. The researchers involved in the study were disappointed with the study results—because adults and young adults in the U.S. use smartphones at such a high rate, they hoped that apps would prove to be an effective intervention to fight the obesity epidemic. However, over the course of multiple years, study participants who used weight-loss apps were no more successful than those who were simply given a few pamphlets about diet and exercise at the very beginning of the study.

So why weren’t the apps effective? Dr. Laura Svetkey, lead author of the study, points to a couple of reasons. First of all, using an app doesn’t provide the same intensity as working with a coach or trainer one-on-one. Additionally, the trends seem to indicate that people stop using apps after a while, indicating an initial excitement, but then use fades as excitement fades. How do we combat this tendency to let interest and excitement wane?

“We know that in general, the more engaged people are in intervention, the more they’re going to succeed from it, and so perhaps we need to rethink how to make a weight-loss intervention on your cell phone more engaging,” says Dr. Svetkey.

The reasoning behind targeting young adults, the population with the highest smartphone use, is that not only are rates of obesity and overweight high, but being overweight or obese during these years often leads to poor health later in life. As Dr. Svetkey alluded to, one key to reaching this specific population may be finding ways to make weight-loss and health apps more exciting and engaging.

While the current slough of weight-loss apps appear to be ineffective at promoting and sustaining weight-loss, is it possible that they could even be doing harm? Nathan Cortez, a medical technology law and regulation expert from Southern Methodist University Law School, says yes.

“Besides wasting your money, these apps may actually do harm. If you’re diabetic and your app is misreading your blood glucose levels, you may give yourself more insulin than you need and go into diabetic shock,” he says.

This is a rather extreme example, but it can offer general guidance—don’t rely on an app for medical information or guidance that could be life-threatening.

While the current weight-loss and health apps don’t appear to be effective tools for the general population, that is not reason you can’t give them a try! You may find that tracking food intake or exercise shows you that you were eating more than you thought you were or exercising less than you thought you were. As always, use good judgment when relying on apps.


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