When Staring at Your Phone Could Lead to a Healthier Lifestyle

New exercise apps and personal sensors can help users stay in shape.

— -- Staring at a screen all day may seem like a surefire way to become unhealthy, but new research suggests that such behavior can sometimes help people stay healthy.

The researchers from multiple universities -- including the University of Washington and Tufts University in Massachusetts -- found that, overall, 75 percent of the studies showed improvement in the various measures with the use of the communication technology that included smartphone apps, internet weight-loss programs, and personal pedometers or sensors to measure physical activity.

The results were more favorable and consistent than expected, according to Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and co-author of the paper.

“I think it’s very hard to change people’s behavior and the fact that nearly all of them used new technology to improve people’s behavior was surprising,” he said.

“There are basic known principles of behavior change,” Mozaffarian told ABC News. “These include monitoring yourself, having some way of tracking and recording what you are doing, getting feedback, and working with peers or social support groups. These are what the new apps are trying to do.”

There were a few key features of the mobile phone or internet programs that the researchers found might help increase effectiveness, according to Dr. Ashkan Afshin, assistant professor of Global Health at the University of Washington and co-author of the study.

They found that “programs that had components such as goal-setting and self-monitoring and used multiple modes of communication and tailored messages tended to be more effective," Afshin told ABC News in an email. "We also found these programs were more effective if they included some interactions with health care providers."

An important message of the research, however, was that most of the interventions that showed effectiveness were only studied in the short-term. Longer-term studies are still needed, especially in the areas of diet modification, and changes in a person’s tobacco use or alcohol consumption, according to the study authors.

Mozaffarian cautions that users interested in apps focused on diet should work with a professional because the researchers found many apps may not have updated dietary recommendations.

Dr. Roy Buchinsky, director of wellness at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Ohio, says the applications and utilization of the technology are part of the future of health care.

He said experts need to focus on longer-term studies as the next goal of research efforts.

“I think once you have done something for a certain period of time, then it truly does become a part of your lifestyle habits,” he said. “I would like to see studies done where we find out from individuals what motivates people to choose a more healthy lifestyle. What is the ‘aha’ moment that motivates them to change their habits.”

Some of the studies received financial support from organizations such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Sackler Institute of Nutrition Sciences, but the researchers said these groups and for-profit companies had no influence on the study.