Using Twitter and mobile apps to make healthy lifestyle changes

There’s a lot of evidence that to prevent many serious health conditions, including diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and stroke, making healthy lifestyle changes are just as good, if not better than, taking medications. Lifestyle changes may consist of stopping unhealthy behaviors such as tobacco and excessive alcohol use, or starting healthy behaviors such as moderate daily exercise and eating adequate amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables.

As anyone who has ever tried to quit smoking or make radical changes to their physical activity or dietary routines will be quick to tell you, though, making healthy lifestyle changes is hard!

Family physicians do our best to support patients trying to make these changes. Unfortunately, with the exception of smoking cessation (where a few minutes of advice from your doctor can make a difference), doctors can’t provide nearly enough counseling in the limited time available at a typical visit. Patients trying to change their lifestyles for the better are most likely to succeed when they receive supportive messages again and again and feel that they aren’t alone in their efforts.

Social media tools such as blogs and Twitter offer a new venue to promote healthy and discourage unhealthy lifestyle behaviors. In addition to receiving regular supportive and educational messages, patients can share their own stories with a community of people undergoing the same types of struggles. Smokers who are seeking support to quit the habit can exchange tips with thousands of fellow nicotine addicts @quitsmoking123; patients with alcohol problems can join a “virtual AA group” @alcoholicsanony; and anyone interested in improving their physical fitness can find virtual lifestyle coaches and trainers at

In addition, as recently reported in the Los Angeles Times, there has been a recent explosion in the number of consumer healthcare applications for smart phones. Many of these free or low-cost apps are designed to help improve physical fitness or encourage weight loss. Although their track records are slim, and none have yet been proven to be effective in changing behaviors, it’s probably worth giving them a try. I would recommend checking with your family doctor first to make sure that an app that you are considering provides reliable information.

Kenneth Lin is a family physician who blogs at Common Sense Family Doctor.

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