Mobile health apps are a promising way to help older adults get more active, according to a new analysis from the University of Cambridge, which revealed consistent trends amongst mobile health app users towards increased step counts, physical activity and fitness, as well as decreases in sedentary time.
The researchers analysed published studies which tested the use of mobile health apps on older adults aged 55 or more. They concluded that these apps may be an important way to improve health in a field where no interventions have yet been found to lead to sustained behaviour change. But they cautioned that bigger studies are needed to confirm the results.
High sedentary time, low physical activity and low fitness levels place older adults at increased risk of chronic diseases and premature mortality. On average, older adults spend 9.4 hours sitting down every day. Most do not meet the recommended levels of physical activity.
So effective interventions to reduce sedentary time, increase activity rates and improve fitness could potentially transform the health and well-being of older adults across the population.
But researchers have not yet found ways to deliver the consistent and sustained changes needed in physical activity and sedentary time. The goal is to find interventions that give positive results after a year or more.
The results from the new research show that mobile health apps – which circumvent cost and accessibility barriers – are an alternative approach that may work.
We report that mobile health app use by study participants led to a trend of increasing step count (an extra 753 steps per day). If mobile health app interventions could indeed reliably provide an extra 753 steps per day over the longer term amongst older adults, this would be over 10% of the recommended step count. This could be a small but potentially clinically significant change at the population level.”
– Dr Dharani Yerrakalva, GP and lead researcher at the Prevention Group, Primary Care Unit
Older adults are not traditionally seen as app users, but in fact smartphone use is significant and increasing, as is the use of health apps. Apps also have unique features and advantages such as GPS monitoring, tailored feedback and reminders throughout the day.
The research identified the features that appeared to be common to effective mobile health apps. The promising features included: syncing to smart activity monitors; behavioural change techniques such as goal setting, self-monitoring and social reward; and combining apps with professional support.
In our increasingly time-pressured healthcare systems, mobile app interventions which can be tailored yet delivered fast and cheaply are useful. We now need large, robust trials to clarify if apps are associated with behaviour change in the short-term and more importantly the degree to which changes are sustained”
– Dr Dhrupadh Yerrakalva, GP registrar and co-author
The study was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).
D Yerrakalva, D Yerrakalva, S Hajna, S Griffin ‘Effects of Mobile Health App Interventions on Sedentary Time, Physical Activity, and Fitness in Older Adults: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis‘ in JMIR, 28 Nov 2019
Find out more: Lucy Lloyd, Communications, Primary Care Unit
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