Generally speaking, our smartphones, tablets, and computers promote unhealthy lifestyle habits. We troll the Internet late at night, disrupting our sleep cycle. We stress ourselves out by incessantly checking, refreshing, and answering emails. And we adopt sloth-like behaviors—staying glued to our chairs as we plug away at work, shop online, watch television shows, and whatever else that takes up a better part of the day.
But a new pilot study says smartphones can be just the thing we need to kickstart a healthier life. The research, supported by the American Cancer Society, discovered smartphone reminders can actually prompt people to get moving more and limit their sedentary behaviors throughout the day.
Before we delve into the study, here are some fast figures: According to the researchers, nearly two in three U.S. adults owned smartphones in 2015, and spent about eight waking hours every day being sedentary. And the implications of that aren't pretty: Higher instances of sedentary behavior increase the risk of "breast, colorectal, ovarian, endometrial, and prostate cancers as well as weight gain, higher BMI, and obesity," according to a press release from the American Cancer Society. So, yeah, we really need to get up.
In the study, participants wore accelerometers to measure their movements and carried smartphones for seven straight days. Over the week, those who reported more than two hours of sitting during the previous day, or replied that they were sitting during any random smartphone assessment, received a message stressing the risks of long periods of uninterrupted sitting. These participants were also encouraged to stand up and move around and, of course, to sit less.
In all, people who received alerts spent three percent less time being sedentary and more time—25 minutes more—being active (compared to participants who didn't receive any prompts on their cell phones).
Want to try it for yourself? Download one of the five apps we've suggested below. None of them require a wearable device, but they do span mobile platforms (Apple and Android) as well as the devices they're powered by (mobile phone, tablet, and desktop) so you can receive alerts and reminders to get active no matter where you are and what you're doing.
Stand Up! The Work Break Timer
Stand Up! is an app with a goal to help you live longer; you know, since sitting all day long is slowly killing us all. Lucky for you it won't annoy you to death either. There's no guilt, micromanaging, or compulsive tracking and time management. The app simply sends reminders to get up. Best of all, it's completely customizable. Choose your alarm tone, set your schedule, and limit the alarm to your office location so it won't go off when you're out to lunch or commuting home, and set an alarm interval to any five-minute increment between five minutes and two hours.
Free for iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch, itunes.apple.com
What's particularly special about MotionX 24/7 is it turns your iPhone (or any other iOS device) into an all-day pedometer, exercise tracker, and sleep-quality monitor. It tracks aerobic steps, separate from all-day steps, so you can see if you're getting the American Heart Association’s minimum 30 minutes a day of moderate-intensity exercise recommended for health. (But you should know: Those who exercise twice and four times the minimum have a substantial heart failure risk reduction of 20 percent and 35 percent, respectively, according to research published in the journal Circulation.) The app has a voice coach to guide you through timed walking or running workouts, and even uses your phone's flash to take your pulse. The sleep-quality monitoring is the same system used by Jawbone UP, and you can also set "Idle Alerts" to let you know when it hasn't sensed any motion in the period of time you pre-selected.
$.99 for iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch, itunes.apple.com
Most people stray from midday workouts because they don't want to return to the office a sweaty mess—and because their schedule seems too packed to stop midway to workout. But Move breaks up your day with little reminders and exercise prompts that are totally doable in any office space. In fact, there are multiple exercise packs you can choose from with hundreds of mini workouts that are constantly being added on to:
• Office - 80+ coworker-friendly exercises you won't be embarassed to do at work.
• Beginner - Never really exercised before? Start easy with these 70+ simple exercises.
• Yoga - Open up your body and your mind with these 50+ simple poses. They'll help you focus, wake up, and warm up your muscles.
• Stretch - Use these 30+ stretches to warm up your muscles—great for people who sit in the same position day after day.
You can customize when you do the workouts, how often the alarm will sound (and what the alarm will sound like), and even turn off specific exercises. (Hey, not everyone can blast off 20 burpees and walk back to their cubicle without looking and sounding they've just been chased down 10 blocks. And if someone ever caught you doing Downward Dog in the stairwell... well, you get the gist.)
Free for iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch, itunes.apple.com
If you have a tendency to get so wrapped up in work that you forget to drink water or step away from your computer for hours on end, Randomly RemindMe is perfect for you. The app lets you set any number of custom reminders throughout the day. These can help you stay on track if you're trying to break a bad habit like smoking, or reinforce good behaviors if you're trying a new diet. The app will automatically back up and restore your reminders, and even tell you how well you're doing by indicating how many alerts you've dismissed. You can view your stats on a daily basis or stretched over months—even a lifetime.
Free for Android phones and tablets, play.google.com
Time Out is a desktop computer app that has two kinds of breaks to relieve the tedium and strain of our workday. The first is a "Normal" break in which you'll be alerted to move for 10 minutes after 50 minutes of work. The second is a "Micro" break that'll alert you to pause briefly for about 10 seconds every 10 minutes so you can fix your posture, relieve some stress, and breathe. Either can be disabled, paused, and reset if you have a meeting or leave at the end of the day, and everything is customizable. Configure how long each type of break lasts and how much time you want to pass between breaks. (The above numbers are just examples.)
And don't worry: An alarm won't sound every 10 seconds. Your screen will slowly dim, and when the break is complete, it'll fade back in again. You can even change the duration of these transitions, and the color, and level of transparency. A progress bar will appear and indicate how many seconds or minutes until your break is over, and there are buttons you can press to postpone or skip the break if you're too busy. With version 1.5, you also have the option to play a song or run an application at the start or end of each break.
Free for Mac desktops with OS X 10.5.0 or later, itunes.apple.com