Digital health: how technology can boost your wellbeing

There are many apps that assist you towards better physical and mental wellbeing

“Technology got us into this mess.”

Prof Niall Moyna is talking about the current trends in Ireland – and indeed globally – of rising obesity levels. "It's the digital age that has actually engineered activity out of our lives."

That impact is certainly becoming obvious. The Central Statistics Office’s most recent figures found 62 per cent of the Irish population overweight or obese in 2017. Separately, a Growing Up in Ireland report found 22 per cent of nine year olds in Ireland are overweight, with 5 per cent classed as obese.

Technology obviously plays a big role in enabling increasingly sedentary lifestyle but unhealthy foods are also adding to our waistlines. A lack of knowledge of how much physical activity is required each day to keep both us and our children healthy is also contributing to the current situation.


A recent Behaviours & Attitudes survey found 13 per cent of all adults take no exercise during the week. Some 15 per cent said they don’t do anything physical during the working day. And only 34 per cent exceed 3½hours of exercise in a week.

The number on the weighing scales may be scary enough to some people, but what should be more concerning is the additional health problems it brings, including Type 2 diabetes which is being diagnosed at a younger age in Ireland. That in turn can lead to further health problems later in life. And Prof Moyna’s own studies have revealed some frightening results; he is seeing inactive 15 year olds with cardiovascular health comparable to 55-60 year olds.

“Technology has done that,” Prof Moyna said. “The flipside of it is now we’re starting to use that technology to enable us to take ownership of our own health, and I think that’s hugely important.”

Prof Moyna has spent a lot of time working in this area. He works with DCU’s Centre for Preventative Medicine.

Health literacy

Health literacy is something he places a lot of stock in. “It’s appalling in this country. Appalling,” he said. “I would like to see a health science curriculum in secondary school.”

That is something that would take some time to implement. But there are steps you can take in the meantime to turn technology into a tool to help you take charge of your health.

You don’t have to suddenly turn into a fitness fanatic overnight, or overhaul your entire diet. Prof Moyna points out that a little change will go a long way. “People don’t realise how little they have to do to get tremendous health benefits,” he said. “For me, when I give talks, I’m always disappointed that I’m always speaking to the ‘worried well’, and I never speak to that bottom 30 or 40 per cent, who are in a bad place physically, or mentally or socially.”

Neither do you have to invest hundreds of euro in trackers and other fitness technology to start finding out more about your health. There are plenty of apps that will help you figure out exactly where you need to make changes to your life.

“You have to start somewhere,” said Prof Moyna.

Not sure where to start? A good all-rounder app will walk you through some steps and get you on the road to better physical and mental wellbeing.

Irish Life’s My Life app is aimed at anyone who wants to keep track of and improve their health, rather than focusing solely on physical activity.

You start out with a health score, based on the questions you answer while setting up the app. You can then connect all your various accounts and devices to the app, linking your health data to count towards meeting your goals. For example, your steps can be counted by your Fitbit, your Apple Watch or just your phone. You can enter your workouts manually or have the app track your next run. And your sleep will also come into it, with the app supporting both trackers and manual input. Each time new data is entered, it can potentially influence your health score – the closer to 1,000 you get, the better.

Straight and narrow

The AI coach pops up now and again to ask you a few questions, suggest some goals and generally keep you on the straight and narrow.

To provide a bit of motivation, there are rewards. You earn points for meeting goals and marking achievements, such as meeting your step goal for the day for a certain period of time, or meditating daily. But the catch there is that they can only be redeemed if you are an Irish Life customer. For everyone else, the app functions well as a way to keep you in touch with your health and how changes you make to your lifestyle improve it.

If you are going to sell a wellness app, you could do worse than having Thor fronting it. Centr brings all the expertise of Chris Hemsworth’s team to an app that will offer users workouts, meditation and recipes. Daily workouts, mealplans that suit different diet requirements, sleep visualisations are all there. You get a seven-day trial before choosing between a one-month, three-month and 12-month subscription.

There are plenty of apps out there that will help you improve your physical health. From interval workouts to long running programmes, yoga to dancing, there is something for almost everyone – if you are willing to pay a few euro.

It all depends on the approach you want to take. “Welcome to seven minutes in hell.” Carrot Fit makes its seven-minute interval training sound so appealing. But that’s its unique selling point: it’s a little more irreverent than the rest, insulting you into getting fitter. From the far from flattering avatars to the automated trainer urging you to “jump flabby human, jump for freedom”, Carrot Fit lays it out from the start. “You’ll need a wall to lean against, a chair to step and a small bucket in case you need to vomit.” If nothing else, it’s distracting.

Subscription service

Sometimes you need a more human touch, but with the efficiency and around-the-clock availability of a computer-generated programme. That’s where Vi Trainer comes in, an AI-powered running coach that learns from you and adapts in real time to your workouts, so no two workouts will ever be the same. It’s a subscription service, costing you €10.49 for the month, but you get a seven-day free trial to see if it’s for you.

Making things competitive is also a good motivator. A firm favourite around these parts, Zombies Run turns your daily slog into a game. You are Runner Five from Abel Township, an outpost that has survived the zombies and whatever else is lurking out there. As you run, the story unfolds, cutting into your playlists with broadcasts from the town and the odd zombie chase here and there. And to add another game element to it, as you run you can collect items to help fortify your settlement. Before you know it, you’re done and on to the next chapter of the story.

We all know what we should be doing, but keeping on the straight and narrow is a bit more difficult than we’d like. And doughnuts taste good. Simply tracking calories won’t magically make you healthier, but having a better understanding of nutrition might help you make better choice. It’s like Prof Moyna pointed out: 100 calories of fruit and veg will have a different metabolic effect than 100 calories of a chocolate bar.

LifeSum, for example, will keep a food diary for you. My Fitness Pal, owned by Under Armor, will give you a breakdown of the nutritional value of what you are eating, so you can see if you are leaning too much towards carbs or not getting enough fruit and veg in your diet.

Meditation and guided therapies

Mental health is just as important as physical health, and although we have a long way to go on that, people are finally starting to notice this. There are plenty of apps that will help you take stock of your mental health, from meditation to guided therapies, and give you tips on how to improve things if appropriate.

Sleep, for example, is incredibly important. If you’ve been paying attention to the experts, a lack of sleep can affect you by making you more forgetful, impeding your ability to learn, It’s all in the name: Calm brings you guided meditation,with calming sounds and “sleep stories” designed to help you beat any sleep issues you may have. There are some celebrity voices in there too, although if you want to fall asleep to Matthew McConaughey you’ll have to stump up for a subscription to Calm. The free alternative is recording the Cbeebies bedtime story and waiting for the celebrities you like.

Stress is another factor. There seems to be a rule with naming apps: take a normal word, put -ify on the end and off you go. Happify uses science-based activities and games to help cut down your stress levels, deal with negative thoughts and equip you with some tools to help safeguard to your emotional wellbeing. It’s actually fun for a start. It’s certainly far more effective than being told to “cheer up, it may never happen” or to snap out of it.