Brain Health

Health Apps: A Help Or A Hindrance?

It’s true – there really is an app for everything, but are they a help or a hindrance to our mental health? H&W investigates…

We’re a nation addicted to our phones and all the convenience they bring. Have a look through your device – how many health apps have you got on there? If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably have quite a few – from periods and sleep, to alcohol intake and fitness, there’s a tracker for just about everything you can think of. In fact, there are more than 40,000 health apps currently available on the App Store, and half of the people that own smartphones globally, have downloaded at least one. However, are they actually helpful, or could they be damaging our mental health? It’s a scary thought, as these apps are available at the touch of a button, so we can access them (and obsess about them) anytime, anywhere. Here, we delve deeper into both sides of the debate to uncover the facts.

Feeling guilty

How often have you opened up one of your health apps, only to feel ashamed of what you can’t log, or the ‘unhealthy’ things you have to record? “The problem with many health apps is that they highlight the negative rather than promote the positive,” says Urksa Srsen, founder of women’s wellness app Bellabeat (bellabeat.com). “This means that you end up feeling guilty for not walking far enough and lying about how much you drink, which can have negative mental health effects.” There are already so many things that women are made to feel guilty about (taking time for ourselves and prioritising work over family are just two things that come to mind), so we definitely don’t need something else on top of that.

An unhealthy obsession

Tracking can become an unhealthy fixation with worrying consequences. One example of this is orthosomnia, meaning an obsessional monitoring of sleep. While it can be helpful for some people to record their shut-eye, it can cause issues for others. “Under certain circumstances, a reliance upon technology to tell us whether we’re sleeping well enough develops, rather than listening to our bodies and our past experience,” explains Dr Julius Bourke, consultant neuropsychiatrist at Re:Cognition Health (recognitionhealth.com). “As this develops, so too does a disconnect between the actual number of hours that someone may need to sleep, and the perceived quality of that sleep as explained by technology rather than how they feel when they wake up in the morning. Getting a solid eight hours of sleep without difficulty and waking feeling refreshed is a reasonable sign that you’ve slept well, but when an all-singing, all-dancing piece of kit tells you that you’re wrong, who are you to disagree? A cycle of competing with the technology may then start, which is difficult to break and potentially anxiety-provoking – which can disrupt your sleep even more.”

As if that wasn’t worrying enough, health apps can also cause obsessions with what we’re eating, or make existing problems worse. A study by the department of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University looked at the relationship between the use of calorie-tracking apps and activity monitors and eating disorders and concluded that, “these devices may do more harm than good”. Meanwhile, the BBC recently conducted its own research and found that some of these types of apps can exacerbate eating disorders, allowing users to record dangerous entries, such as ‘purge’ and ‘starved’.

A Guiding light

After reading this, you may be thinking that there is nothing at all redeeming about these types of apps, but that isn’t necessarily the case – it all comes down to the type of app you use. “Our phones and technology can be used in numerous ways to guide, plan and support our mental health,” says wellness expert Emily Wysock-Wright.

“I would advise using apps such as Headspace or Calm to build your own resources for reducing anxiety. Start slowly to get used to it. There are some really good apps for planning and intention-setting, which is great for stress management as it allows us to set ourselves up for the day, week, month etc., and helps people prioritise their thoughts and actions.” However, she does agree that some apps can be damaging: “I would suggest avoiding anything that causes negative emotions and try to focus on accounts that are both motivational and educational. This is particularly important when it comes to nutritional apps, as there is a huge link between how we eat and how this affects how we think and feel.”

24/7 Help

The fact that health apps can be accessed at all times can be both beneficial and harmful. If you’re feeling low but aren’t able to access therapy, or need something to complement the counselling you are undergoing, the fact that many mental health apps are free and available 24/7 (unlike mental health professionals) can really make a difference. Apps such as 7 Cups, for example, have dedicated volunteer listeners that are available throughout the day and night, as well as the option to pay for confidential online therapy. This is especially beneficial as it comes at a time when mental health services’ funding in the UK is being subjected to large government cuts.

There are also physical health apps that offer this kind of support. The WW app, for example, features a 24/7 online coach to help you stay on track, while certain fitness apps offer AI coaches to boost your progress. However, be careful before downloading anything, as technology has now reached a point where anyone can release an app without having any knowledge of the topic. Read the checklist to the right for our top tips!

How can I find a health app that’s right for me?

There are so many apps on offer that it can feel confusing when searching for one, so if you decide that you would like to use one to help you reach your goals or to support your mental wellbeing, use our checklist to find the best one for you:

✔ Read other people’s reviews, both on the app store and online, to see what others are saying about it.

✔ Steer clear of apps that seem to over promise.

✔ Be sure to check the fine print to find out how your data will be shared.

✔ Try to find an app with social support, as finding other people in a similar situation can encourage you and help you stay on track.
✔ If, after a month, you find that you haven’t incorporated the app into your life, it’s time to delete it and try another one.

The health apps we trust

Holly, Editor FIIT

“FIIT is like having a PT from the comfort of your living room, and you might even know them! Fitness gurus like Cat Meffan and even our lovely cover star, Fearne Cotton lead classes (I’ve only tried the yoga flows), and you can choose from 20, 45 or 60-minute sessions. If you can’t fit in the gym one day, this app is perfect for slotting in a workout around your schedule – hello 7am Vinyasa flow!”

Vicky, Deputy editor Headspace

“If, like me, meditation is something you always mean to do, but never seem to get around to, try Headspace. You’ll find hundreds of bite-sized guided mediations on everything from stress to sleep, that can fit into even the busiest of schedules – who can really say they haven’t got just 10 minutes to spare?”

Stacey, Content writer Flo

“The clue’s in the name: This tracking app doesn’t only predict when you’ll have your period next, but explains your cravings, mood swings and even gives you advice on how you can relieve your cramps. It also comes with a built-in step count which means you’ll keep going back into the app to check your increasing, or in my case, lack of, mileage each day.”

Daniella, Editorial assistant deliciously Ella app

“With more than 400 healthy recipes, instructional yoga videos and shopping list features, this app brings plant-based living right to your fingertips! The step-by-step images and guides make this app so easy to use and it’s updated every week with fresh recipes for the changing seasons.”

Health & Wellbeing