By Teresa Corbett
In 2016, I got a job at the University of Southampton. I accepted this job, promising myself that it would not impact the other huge task I had at hand: PhD thesis writing. Moving to the UK last March was daunting- starting a new job and working late in the evenings on PhD work wasn’t easy (especially when I was trying to find a house, make friends and sleep as well!). Being a Health Psychologist I knew there was only one way to stay on track- I had to ensure that my health was prioritised. This couldn’t be a thesis write up story of coffee and sweets, late nights and treats. I needed all my focus and energy. I managed to find some apps that helped me achieve this and wanted to share them with you.
1.The pedometer app
I’m someone who not only enjoys exercise, but also I need it for both my physical and mental health. When I moved, late evenings and early starts didn’t really leave much time for structured daily exercise. I didn’t know the area very well and being sweaty after lunch would have made it difficult to make friends. However, I did want to make sure I kept moving. Luckily, the iPhone tracks your steps using the “Health” app. I set a target to hit
8,000 steps each day during the week. It’s surprisingly tough with a sedentary office job. But monitoring my step-count helped me to gradually increase my steps. I found myself walking longer routes home to hit my target after work. I increased to 10,000 steps and now most days I’ll often walk 12-14,000 steps just out of habit. It does help that I’m competitive in nature I guess! The participants in this study increased by an average of 3000 steps by using a pedometer.
2. The food-monitoring app
I’ve tried the whole self-monitoring food thing before while on diets. It never worked. Counting calories and portion sizes is confusing, cognitively demanding, and often downright difficult. However, while writing up my thesis, I did want to make sure I was a) not eating too much and b) eating enough of the good stuff. When we’re tired, it’s easy to reach for sugar and fatty snacks. The idea of getting home and gorging on a simple-to-make, easy filling, tasty pizza has entered my mind more than once. Luckily, by logging my food intake regularly I’ve been able to keep things fairly under control. I haven’t changed my diet drastically or anything… just keeping an eye on portion sizes and food content. I feel like I’ve lots of energy and think I may have actually lost a bit of weight… or else my clothes have stretched (still figuring out how the washing machine works here!). It could also be down to the standing and step-counting. I should have been more rigorous in planning this experiment!! See here for a recent lit review on using apps to promote a healthy diet.
3.The stand-up app
Working in an office and writing your thesis does not promote standing. I didn’t want to sit in front of a screen for hours on end. I find it uncomfortable and I get too stiff! I found a very simple app called “stand- up” that simply prompts you to stand up at regular intervals. I set mine so that I stand up for 5 minutes every 45 minutes. It was originally set at every 30 minutes but personally I found that too disruptive. When I get my prompt, I stand up and fill my water bottle (increasing water intake also… double points!) and maybe go to the loo (step count win!). Sometimes, if I’m in the middle of something I might leave it… but the prompt plants a niggle that I should stand up soon. One great thing about this app is that you can change the prompt to say whatever you like. I’ve kept the original because it amuses me in its brutish simplicity: “Stand up. We want you to live longer.” There’s lots to read about the hazards of too much sitting, check out this and this to get you started.
4.The sleeping better app
My research centres on fatigue. And I’ve had many days where I’ve wondered how someone who knows SO much about fatigue can be so fatigued!? Well I guess it’s simple really. I wasn’t putting what I knew into practice. So I began to keep a sleep diary using my “Sleeping better app”. Every night I input information about my day: alcohol intake, exercise, caffeine, stress etc. In the morning my alarm gradually increases in volume so that I’m slowly roused from my sleep rather than jolted awake like with most alarms. I’ve learned that I sleep best when I exercise. However, if I leave it too late to exercise, it takes me longer to get to sleep. I’ve learned about how to balance quality over quantity. And again, most days I wake feeling fresh and end up less tired while at work! Getting adequate sleep is important, in fact it’s a public health issue! Have a look at this paper outlining public health policy recommendations for sleep.
5. The social app
And finally… WhatsApp. An odd one I guess. But moving away is tough and writing your thesis is tough. So it’s important to feel connected. Sometimes I’m more of a lurker than a poster in my friend groups. Other days I get to vent and rant. Some days my friends send me silly pictures when I need them most (whether they realise it or not!). And I don’t think I’d have been able to do any of this if I felt lonely. This paper expounds the benefits of social support for general health and this one looks specifically at WhatsApp and Facebook.