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How to choose a good health app

Focused on Health - February 2014

health appby Brittany Cordeiro and Laura Nathan-Garner

From helping you wake up rested to getting couch potatoes ready for a 5K, there really is an app for everything.

But when it comes to health apps, proceed with caution. That’s true of apps for smartphones, tablets, computers and even TVs.

"Most companies don't conduct a study to determine if their app actually helped users change or improve their behavior," says Karen Basen-Engquist, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Behavioral Science at MD Anderson.

In addition, app stores don’t have medical reviewers who make sure health apps are medically sound. "It takes extra research by the user to find out if the app developers consulted with a medical expert," Basen-Engquist says.

 So, before you start to download, separate the good apps from the bad using these tips.

1. Set realistic expectations.

Think of health apps as tools to complement what you're doing offline.

So, before downloading an app, figure out what you need to do to achieve your health goals. Then, figure out how an app can and can't help.

Basen-Engquist suggests trying apps that track your behavior and use charts or graphs to show your progress overtime.

"Keeping track of the foods you eat, your body measurements or the amount you exercise can be useful to help you achieve your health goals," Basen-Engquist says.    

2. Avoid apps that promise too much.

Beware of apps promising big results — and fast.

"If an app makes wild promises about weight loss or a four-minute workout that will have miraculous results, steer clear," Basen-Engquist says. "If it sounds too good to be true, chances are it probably is."

Research shows that people aren't quick to change unhealthy behaviors. The app should instead encourage long-term lifestyle changes.

health app

3. Research the developers.

Don't let attractive graphics or enticing features fool you.

Do some digging. Find the developer's name in the app store or on the app's website. Then, research the developer and find out:

  • Whether they've designed other health apps
  • How long they've been developing health apps
  • Whether they consulted health professionals to develop the app
  • Whether any reputable hospitals or health organizations endorse the app

No experience, no consultation with a health organization? That's a red flag, so keep looking.

4. Choose apps that use evidence-based strategies

You're probably looking for a health app to help you change an unhealthy behavior. So, play it safe and choose an app that uses strategies that research has shown to work. Basen-Engquist shares the evidence-based strategies to look for:

  • Self-monitoring
  • Goal setting
  • Cues or push notifications
  • Social support
  • Rewards

"My sister and I use the same exercise app. When I see that she's exercised, it motivates me to exercise, too," Basen-Engquist says. Social support from others can encourage you to stay on track. Some apps provide medals or icons as rewards for reaching a particular milestone. And, others offer rewards that can be redeemed for real world value.

exercise app

5. See what other users say.

Read reviews in the app store, and do a search online to see what other users think about the app.

And, pay particular attention to readers who've used the app for a while. This feedback may provide insight into whether the app can really help you in the long term.

6. Test apps before committing.

Even the best app can't work its magic if you don’t use it as recommended. So, test out several health apps before choosing one and give the one you choose a fair chance.

If an app isn't easy and convenient to use, you probably won't use it regularly. And, those healthy changes you're trying to adopt probably won't become habit.

Don't give up if the first few apps don't do the trick. Test-driving different apps can teach you about your likes and dislikes, so you can find an app — or an offline solution — that works for you.

"Also, try to find one solution that meets all your health needs," Basen-Engquist says. And, add fun into your app-testing equation. "Apps that make behavior change more fun will help you reach your health goals."

READ ALSO: 43 Apps to help prevent cancer

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© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center