Home » Opinion/Editorial » Our Guide to the 5 Most Popular iOS Health Apps – And Why They Work

Our Guide to the 5 Most Popular iOS Health Apps – And Why They Work


mHealth offerings come in all shapes and sizes these days. Photo via SmartAirMedia.

As the end of the year approaches, most of us are fine-tuning our holiday shopping strategies and planning menus for gatherings of families and friends. The year began with such promise as we set ambitious goals to shed stubborn pounds and establish a consistent exercise plan. Perhaps some of us actually stuck to our plans, but there’s a good chance that a lot of us (myself included) fell off the wagon somewhere around April. If you’re like me, as you gaze into the coming onslaught of progressive dinners, gingerbread houses, and whole days indoors due to Snowpocalypse 2014, you may sigh and just give up a little. After all, in several weeks, we’ll be enthusiastically scribbling aspirational resolutions that we’ll desperately try to bring to life yet again.

But take a moment for a reality check – a technology reality check. If we identify key roadblocks to our health, we have a better chance of sidestepping that ditch of despair. Consider the following:

  1. Data entry – Keeping a food diary can help you lose weight and keep it off by increasing awareness of what, how much, and why you’re eating. Meal logging can help to curb mindless munching. However, depending on how detailed a log you’d like to keep, recording each meal can be a painful and frustrating process.
  2. Social connection – The journey to wellness can be a lonely one. While some people prefer to go it alone, others value the benefits that collaborative wellness can offer. This can range from group exercise classes to Facebook communities for meal planning. Sharing your goals with others may help you stay accountable and provides you with a cheering section when you succeed.
  3. Motivation – Let’s be real. Our best intentions are usually sidelined by life. Without the right support in place, it may only take missing one 6 a.m. spin class or indulging in a slice of co-worker birthday cake to make us feel like our setbacks are insurmountable.
  4. Cost – These days, a gym membership is just the first rung on the ladder. From specialty classes like barre and Zumba to personal training and bootcamps, there are a variety of workout options to choose from. However, many of these options are pricey and may not fit into your busy schedule.
  5. Visibility – Even though we live in our bodies, our minds, internal functions, and emotions are largely uncharted territories. We lack visibility into the part our actions, conscious or unconscious, play in our overall health and well-being.

This is where technology comes into play. There are many apps that promise to help us achieve our goals. But what apps do we keep, and which ones do we ditch? Personally, the health apps that remain on my phone are the ones that require the least amount of interaction from me. In general, the most successful apps are the ones that are engaging and can help us easily navigate roadblocks.

This week, we rounded up the 5 most downloaded iOS health apps and took a look at how they maintained success. Why do people like these apps so much – and how can you replicate their success factors?

MyFitnessPal (1)MyFitnessPal (for iOS), Cost: Free

MyFitnessPal is a calorie counter and exercise tracker that allows you to track input (calories from food consumed) and output (calories expended during exercise and activity) to provide visibility into how your behavior affects your goal progress. The app uses the statistics you enter – height, weight, age, gender, and activity level – to help you lose, gain, or maintain your weight level.

Users of this app praise it as being a major component of their success. Why? MyFitnessPal eases data entry barriers by utilizing a database of foods, drinks, and activity that makes the process of keeping track of everything quick and (mostly) accurate. When most of the work has been done for you (with item auto-population, long lists of common foods, and simple portion estimation) you are more likely to continue. The easy-to-interpret graphs and progress indicators also provide visibility into how food and activity choices affect progress. However, the database isn’t complete, and you may find that less mainstream meals or ingredients are not included – you’ll have to manually enter those items to include them in your diary.

Additionally, other popular devices and apps (like FitBit, Jawbone UP, RunKeeper, and MapMyRun) can connect to MyFitnessPal and automatically add data from activities to your diary. Users with an iPhone 5s or later versions can use MyFitnessPal to count the number of steps they take daily.

MyFitnessPal has also found success because it builds community and connection through its app and social media. Users can engage with their friends through the app by making their food diary public, posting status updates, and offering encouragement and advice. Forums and connections to social media also broaden the ways that people can connect with each other to share the experience of achieving goals.

sleepcycleSleep Cycle Alarm Clock (for iOS and Android), Cost: $0.99

The Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock is a system that wakes you up in your lightest sleep phase. The app tracks your sleep cycles through an accelerometer in your phone to monitor movements, which determines which sleep phase you’re in and, according to the company, results in more restful sleep.

The Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock likely works well because it requires little data entry – it calibrates itself over the first few nights of sleep and continues to learn and improve over time. The app also passively keeps track of the number of steps you take during waking hours and counts this as “activity”. Further, you can add “Sleep notes” and “Wake up mood” to the app, noting personal observations about your night’s sleep. Users can view trends and patterns in graphs such as “Time in bed vs. Went to bed” and “Went to bed per day of the week.”

Sleep Cycle also minimizes things that are counterproductive to restful sleep. For example, it mutes incoming message notifications when it is running (no more buzzing email alerts at 3 a.m.!).  Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock now has full support for iOS 8 and Apple’s Health app, too. This means that data from Sleep Cycle – such as bedtime, wake time, sleep quantity, and sleep quality – can be automatically synched with Apple’s Health app.

NikeNike+Running (for iOS and Android), Cost: Free

The Nike+Running app is a supplemental running app that tracks runners through a GPS system and logs important data, like distance, pace, time, and calories burned, as they’re running. Once a run is complete, the runner can look at a summary map that contains the course and basic stats of the run. The app strives to help users make the most out of their workouts by providing free audio coaching through Nike+ Coach. While running with the app may not replace a running group, the app provides coaching and real-time performance feedback for runners on all levels on demand.

Nike+ Running leverages social media and existing phone features to turn a solitary activity into a more socially engaging one. Runners can customize challenges and connect with friends through Nike+ Challenges. Users can set goals, share accomplishments, and cheer each other on. Runners can also keep their social networks up to date by sharing and tagging photos with Nike+ stats. In addition, the app can be paired with other Nike+ accessories for a full workout review.

headspaceHeadspace – Meditation and Mindfulness (for iOS and Android), Cost: Free

Headspace hopes to make meditation simple through meditation techniques that are easy to learn. Users start with a free Take10 program that teaches the basics of meditation in ten-minute audio sessions. Special “singles” sessions, such as the SOS Session for “melt down moments,” are also available to subscribers.

Headspace is a beautiful app. Its soothing and tasteful color palette is airy and uncluttered. The illustrations are engaging and disarming. The app also does a good job of gently guiding you into immediate usage. Cute “getting started” animations and tutorials help you get started quickly. Registration is straightforward and doesn’t require much data entry. The first time you use the app, a coach points out key features and helps to orient you to how the app is laid out.

The app also engages users by dangling carrots. As you progress through the levels, you unlock short animations. The app also tracks stats so you can watch your own journey, and users gain achievements by using the app consistently. Through Headspace, users can connect with friends and others in the Headspace community. “Buddies” offer encouragement, track progress, and offer gentle nudges. The idea is that the collective community can help users build more mindful habits.

FitstarFitStar Personal Trainer (for iOS), Cost: Free

FitStar promises that “you don’t need a lot of space, fancy equipment, or even tons of free time” to get results from your workout. FitStar presents customized exercise routines featuring NFL player Tony Gonzalez. The app adjusts workouts based on performance. For example, if you can’t do many burpees, the app will notice and limit how many it asks you to do until you improve. The videos are tailored to users based on statistics like age, weight, and exercise performance. You can rate each exercise at the end of the workout based on your performance.

FitStar aims to lower the bar to fitness by making a somewhat daunting process accessible. Workouts vary in length – from 7 minutes to just under an hour – and are designed to fit into any part of your day. None of the programs require equipment as all of the workouts consist of body weight exercises. Users can perform the workouts in a space as small as “the size of a double bed.”

Users can also connect to each other through the FitStar community and share tips, encouragement, and inspiration. FitStar has active communities on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Much cheaper than a gym membership, the app is free to download and costs $5 per month to unlock all of its features. The free membership, FitStar Basic, includes 2 sessions per week. Targeted workout programs are available and additional coaching features are available with the paid subscription.


Measuring health in an effort to improve overall wellness can start out fun but become overwhelming with time. Something to remember is that any system or app will only be as useful as the data you fill it with. These five apps do a lot to keep users engaged – did you notice that community trend? – so that people will keep using them and ultimately fill each app with data points, knitting together a larger story about health and well being. So you’ve got a head start and no excuses: start tracking your health and break the resolution cycle this year!

Soniya Shah contributed reporting to this story.

Kijana Knight-Torres

Kijana Knight-Torres

    Kijana Knight-Torres is the Principal User Experience Researcher at projekt202. projekt202 is an Austin-born software design and development agency that focuses on creating optimal user experiences for clients and end users. Knight-Torres has a B.S. in Computer Science from Rice University and a M.S. in Information Studies from the University of Texas iSchool. She is passionate about helping others find solutions to their own problems and building empathy through effective communication. Besides work, she enjoys photography, music, and cooking and traveling with her husband.

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