The explosion in smartphones and their downloadable applications -- their apps -- have led to new ways to stay healthy. Workout routines can be encouraged by the ping of a phone. Calories can be counted. Blood sugar monitored. Symptoms scrutinized.
At times it seems that every aspect of the health industry is covered, at least in some small way, by iPhones and Androids. So in theory, it's easier now to stay healthy than it ever has been before.
Granted, there's a difference between downloading an app and using it.
Dr. Ray Costantini, director of digital product strategy for Providence Health and Services, said the growth in health-related apps doesn't inherently mean better health, even if doctors encourage their use.
"As an industry, we're really good at telling people what they need to do and not good at knowing what people want to do," he said. "We need to start finding where that overlaps."
Costantini sees more apps being developed that thread that needle, offering accurate, useful and engaging information and tools to users.
And that's a good thing.
"The more empowered people are to participate in their own health care, the less their health care costs, and the better their health care is," he said.
Costantini said he couldn't recommend one single app, simply because every person has different needs.
In part, that's what makes smartphones ideal. There's no need to push a single product. The marathon runner and the diabetic alike can find something of use.
"There isn't one app that will make everyone better," he said. "That's part of the beauty -- that it has that flexibility."
Hundreds of health-related apps exist. Here are five top ones.
• iTriage: Recommended by the staff at Providence, this app was developed by two ER docs and now is used in more than 80 countries. It helps users interpret symptoms and seek treatment, pointing them toward the local ER or a specialist's waiting room, based on what they may have.
• Nike+ Running: The app uses a smartphone's GPS signal to chart runs, and then compares your training regimen, to let you know if you're improving or not. It also offers audio feedback, including cheers from friends.
• Sleepcycle: Using an iPhone's ability to monitor movement, this app can be timed to wake you up when you're sleeping most lightly, in theory making the transition into the waking world a little less stressful. Similar apps are available for Android phones.
• Noom Cardio Trainer: Noom has an entire line of apps built around fitness for Android phones. Its Cardio Trainer tracks how many calories you're burning and lets you schedule workouts with reminders. Similar applications exist for the iPhone.
• Calorie Counter by MyFitnessPal: This app boasts a database of more than 1.7 million food items -- including fast food -- with breakdowns on everything from calories to carbs and cholesterol. By tracking meals, users get help shedding pounds.
Picking an app
Smartphone applications are developing at a hectic rate. Some are good. Some aren't. Dr. Ray Costantini of Providence suggested three ways to find reliable ones.
• Number of downloads, user ratings: Costantini called these markers "a fair place to start." He notes that numbers can be deceptive, though. They may signal effective marketing for an ineffective app. Popularity "doesn't mean they're the highest quality."
• Name of the developer: Aim for apps developed by medical professionals and their institutions. Places like the Mayo Clinic and the National Institutes for Health both develop apps. "There's quality content that's been vetted," Costantini said.
• Doctor's orders: Costantini said doctors are becoming more well-versed in phone apps. In Great Britain, they are even reimbursed for prescribing them. Asking your physician for a recommendation can connect you with the app best-tailored to your needs.
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