Yoga and mhealth – the perfect recipe for health empowerment?

What does it mean when your stress levels go up Mon–Fri and down Fri–Mon?

I have to admit, I don’t consider myself a particularly ‘app-y” person. It’s not that I don’t use apps at all – I use my email app, my messaging apps, apps for social media and banking, apps to find out the train times, apps to tackle my complete lack of sense of direction. But unless it’s a super functional app, I really struggle to stick to it, as demonstrated by the graveyard of apps I downloaded, used once and never looked at again.

Which is why I sometimes feel like a bit of a hypocrite when I talk about the potential of digital in health and wellbeing – also known as mHealth. But I know it’s huge. Digital health, and specifically apps, can be a beautiful way to deliver the tools we all need to take a more active role in our health and wellbeing.

use of mobile and wireless technologies to support the achievement of health objectives

WHO definition of mHealth

Here’s a really simple example. Say you start experiencing migraines. You can start logging when you have them. You can add information about what else you were doing at the time, where you were, who you were with. You can note down what helped and what didn’t, so that you know what to do when you have one again. My dad apparently used to do this on a piece of paper – that’s how active a ‘patient’ he is. Today, mHealth makes this even easier.

Yoga is also a tool for empowerment

I’ve written before about the value of yoga in making us be more connected with our health and wellbeing, be active participants that take action rather than passive recipients of care. There have since been a couple more studies that suggest that yoga drives health-promoting behaviours.

So, what happens when you put the two together?

The perfect recipe for self-care, apparently. A recent review discusses the potential of mHealth interventions that include self-care practices such as yoga, breathing, meditation (aka all yoga) as well as music, sleep, gratitude and physical exercise, in a range of different chronic diseases.

The idea is that when we practice self-care, we become better attuned with what we need, we learn to respond, to adapt, to better manage our health and wellbeing – we become less dependent others, including our doctors and the healthcare system. A digital delivery method, as is the case for mHealth, means that these tools are at our fingertips whenever we need them. Which is likely to lead to better health outcomes overall.

the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness with or without the support of a healthcare provider

WHO definition of self-care

mHealth interventions have used self-care practices in the context epilepsy, depression, cancer and chronic pain (I’m sure there are more but these are the ones the article focuses on). Used alongside medication, they help reduce symptoms and improve quality of life – in fact, for chronic pain they generally preferred over medication (eg see recent NICE guidance on complementary therapies in lieu of medication for chronic pain).

Another recent study also found that a mind–body programme for patients with cancer, delivered digitally through the pandemic, helped participants stick to health-promoting behaviours and tackled loneliness and its effects.

Is mHealth always the way?

Digital might not always be the best way to deliver yogic practices, of course. Many of us truly value working with people, as part of a community – and apps can’t quite deliver that human touch.

But there are several instances where digital might actually be better: if you live somewhere isolated and can’t get to a class; if you can’t afford classes; if you just feel awkward about going to an in-person class or you don’t feel like you quite belong. Digital makes yoga accessible to all.

And in the context of chronic disease, which is what this article is about, self-care practices like yoga (and breathing, and meditation) can be combined with a disease management programme to ultimately deliver a holistic care package.

Plus, digital interventions have the advantage of being able to be there “just in time” – when the person needs it the most. That might mean being able to access a breathing practice in a middle of an anxiety attack. Or it might be a gentle suggestion to do an indoors physical yoga practice instead of an outdoors activity on a day when the weather is bad. This is personalisation at its finest.

So, ultimately the best recipe is probably a combination of the two. Plus additional interventions. Because, let’s face it, yoga is not the panacea for everything.

PS. In hindsight…

I think I’m wrong actually. I think I’m far app-ier than I thought I was. I’ve been using Insight timer for years to access yoga nidra and time my meditation sessions. I use a breathing app to practice my coherent breathing.

But app-iest of all, I’ve had an Oura ring since December, which was strongly recommended by two of my lovely yoga teachers. I find it fascinating – seeing how well (or not) my body is coping with stress (eg my stress levels are good on a Monday and plummet by Friday, what does that tell you?), the impact different activities can have and, most importantly, being able to take action and adjust my lifestyle to improve that, especially on a year full of stressful events.

(Plus, I’m not going to lie, even at the midst of a full-blown panic attack, I have checked my heart rate and HRV on my Oura – it’s all in the spirit of science!).

The whole point of personalised health and wellbeing is that there’s definitely something out there for everyone.

Do you use digital interventions as part of your self-care?

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