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Can mHealth Apps and Text Messages Get Teens to Exercise?


The power of mHealth solutions remains in question, a new study finds.

mhealth exercise, mhealth, digital health

Researchers still need to explore the effects of mHealth apps in relation to adolescents' exercise habits. Image has been altered. Licensed from arrow - Fotolia

More elaborate studies must be done to understand the effects that text messages and mobile health (mHealth) interventions have on improving physical activity and reducing sedentary behavior in adolescents, according to a new systematic review.

Researchers analyzed 13 studies that reported on 11 interventions conducted in schools, online or face to face. The review found that seven interventions resulted in an improvement of physical activity and six for sedentary behavior.

>> READ: Cellphones Can Boost Patient-Centered Care, Drug Adherence Rates

Because the studies were too wide-ranging, researchers couldn’t determine whether text messages played a part in improving the physical activity and reducing sedentary behavior in youth. Because of this, researchers are calling for more rigorous studies that incorporate conditions such as long-term follow-up, self-monitoring, goal-setting and feedback.

“Future research should focus on the sole effect of text messages as well as user preferences and experiences of using this type of intervention to provide a comprehensive evidence base that can inform current practice and ensure increase intervention effectiveness,” said Kim Ludwig, M.S., from the Institute of Clinical Exercise and Health Science at the University of the West of Scotland.

In the studies covered by the review, researchers used text messages to help participants become physically active and to encourage them. In some cases, text messages provided participants with health behavior information and skills to reduce risk behaviors.

Despite being unable to draw definitive conclusions in regard to how text message-based interventions can be used to help adolescents, there is evidence that shows the promise of mHealth interventions.

“The international evidence base on mHealth interventions as well as [our] own research show promise of implementing such programs within the current healthcare plans of clinical populations as well as ‘healthy’ individuals,” Ludwig said.

Adolescents should get at least an hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day. But with the increased usage of cellphones and technology, findings suggest that 80.3 percent of adolescents globally are insufficiently active. They spend 57 percent of their time on sedentary activities, such as watching television or playing video games, which are linked with poor psychological and physiological health, mortality and cardiovascular disease.

On the other hand, increased physical activity improves lifespan, bone health, insulin resistance and blood pressure.

But judging by their prevalence alone, cellphones could help solve the problem. More than 90 percent of 12- to 15-year-olds from the United Kingdom are currently using mobile phones.

“Such high usage suggests that these mobile devices may offer a cost-effective and acceptable means for delivering health behavior change intervention that can fit within people’s everyday lives and have population-wide reach,” the authors noted.

mHealth apps can help patients monitor, manage and improve their health, as well as receive appointment or medication reminders. This can be beneficial for patients who are disabled and have difficulty leaving their homes and those do not have easy access to hospitals or doctors’ offices.

Despite the need for more research, Ludwig and her team remain hopeful that more rigorous text message and mHealth studies can prove effective when it comes to improving the health of adolescents and adults alike.

The review was recently published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research mHealth and uHealth.

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