Hong Kong iPhone users invited to join tens of thousands worldwide in study of exercise and heart health

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 September, 2015, 10:23am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 September, 2015, 10:23am

Hong Kong has become the next major testing ground, after the United States, for a free iPhone application that allows users to contribute to an advanced research on cardiovascular health.

MyHeart Counts, an iPhone app created by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine in the US, was made available to users in Hong Kong last month in line with the international expansion of the world’s largest study of measured physical activity and cardiovascular health to date.

“We are looking for everyone who is curious as to how healthy their heart is to download this app,” Alan Yeung, the Li Ka-shing professor of cardiology at Stanford, told the South China Morning Post.

“MyHeart Counts, essentially, was designed to try to understand how exercise relates to heart health.”

He expected the study in Hong Kong to lead to the release in the next few months of a Chinese-language version of MyHeart Counts, which was also recently made available in Britain.

MyHeart Counts was one of the first five apps to be built using Apple’s ResearchKit software framework. It is also the first to be launched internationally.

Unveiled in March, ResearchKit provides customisable modules that address the most common elements found in research studies — participant consent, surveys and active tasks.

It turns the ubiquitous iPhone into a powerful tool for medical research. When granted permission by the user, apps can access and collect data, such as blood pressure and activity level, from the smartphone’s built-in accelerometer, gyroscope and other sensors.

Recruiting participants for large-scale studies is also made easier by ResearchKit since researchers spend less time on paperwork and more time analysing data.

Yeung said a medical study of 1,000 patients, for example, usually took a year to recruit because researchers needed to interview each one of those.

When MyHeart Counts was released in March, about 100,000 people downloaded the app. Of that number, between 40,000 to 50,000 agreed to participate in the study.

The free app offers users a simple way to participate in the study, complete tasks and answer surveys from their iPhones. Once every three months, participants are asked to monitor one week’s worth of physical activity, complete a six-minute walk fitness test if they are able to, and enter their risk-factor information.

Participants who have an Apple Watch are encouraged to use the device with the app. Activity data from Apple Watch will feed directly into the built-in Health app on the iPhone.

By studying the relationship between exercise and cardiovascular condition on a broad scale, Stanford researchers expect be able to understand better how to keep hearts healthier.

Researchers have reported that they have collected the most data ever on the six-minute walk fitness test for a single study, thanks to the free app.

The latest version of MyHeart Counts delivers a comprehensive summary of each user’s heart health and areas for improvement. It also focuses on empowering participants with more feedback about their individual behaviours and risk.

“We’ll now be providing feedback about physical activity, diet, blood pressure and cholesterol levels,” said Michael McConnell, the principal investigator for the MyHeart Counts study and a professor of cardiovascular medicine at Stanford.

In addition, the new version of the app includes information comparing the user’s data to others participating in the fitness test, as well as a newsfeed section that provides updates on heart health news.

Stanford researchers are now also working with their counterparts at the University of Oxford in Britain to port MyHeart Counts to the Android mobile platform.

“Our app is applicable to everyone in the world,” Yeung said.

“As you know, everybody has a high chance of getting a heart attack because we eat too well, we don't exercise and modern life is quite high risk.”

Yeung pointed out that Hong Kong, mainland China and countries in Southeast Asia currently have rising incidences of heart attacks, while many developed countries have decreasing rates of cardiac arrest.

“The heart can actually work for a long time if you take care of it,” he said.