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North Hills Monthly

What's hAPPening with your health?

Jun 30, 2016 08:52AM ● By Jennifer Monahan

Dr. Judith Cohen - Triangle of Life app

The phrase “There’s an app for that!” has become so ubiquitous that it’s almost a punchline. People with access to smartphones can find apps to provide directions, shopping, entertainment, weather forecasts, news and much more. For those interested in improving their health, apps offer some helpful, fun and engaging tools.

Exercise and Nutrition

Whether you want to find out how far you’re walking around the neighborhood or track your training toward a triathlon, RunKeeper is an invaluable resource. Using your phone’s GPS, RunKeeper gives frequent updates throughout the workout about distance, time and pace. It tracks elevation and can pull music from your iTunes account to help keep you motivated as you slog through the miles. The app allows users to record their weight along with activities from cycling to snowboarding to meditation. As its “Fitness is more fun together!” motto suggests, the app lets people connect to share workouts and progress toward fitness goals.

In 2014, Carnegie Mellon University launched its CMU Nutrition Calculator, which allows anyone on campus to track their daily meals across all of the university’s dining facilities. Users can calculate calories and nutrients for each meal, and can easily access details related to food allergies, kosher meals and vegan or vegetarian preferences. 

“We wanted to offer better information to the campus community,” explained Pascal Petter, director of dining services for CMU. With more than 30 unique dining concepts on campus, the app provides a streamlined way for students, faculty and staff to make informed choices about their meals. Petter has received lots of positive feedback from students, who appreciate the comprehensive nutritional information as well as the ability to search for food options within specific nutritional ranges. 

If you are not part of the CMU community, don’t despair. LoseIt! and Fooducate are popular apps for tracking calories and weight loss, or just for keeping tabs on the nutritional value of your diet. 

LoseIt! makes it easy to record meals—the database includes menu items from most chain restaurants, and will calculate the nutritional content of two tablespoons of creamy peanut butter if you’re making a sandwich at home. Users can add their own foods, such as homemade granola or pumpkin bread, to their personal databases. The app saves the new food in its system, allowing for quick future entries. 

Fooducate allows users to scan barcodes on food in the grocery store and provides a quick grade (e.g., B- for Aldi’s Savoritz Thin Wheat Crackers) and nutritional analysis. Comparing different brands of breakfast cereal is a snap, and the app gives suggestions for healthier alternatives when appropriate. 

Healthy Kids

Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC created the ChildrensPgh app which has everything from a symptoms checker—complete with instructions about when to call 911, when to call the pediatrician and when to administer a hug and send kids back outside to play—to dosage tables for acetaminophen, ibuprofen and common allergy medications. Anyone who has fumbled around at 2 a.m. trying to figure out how much Tylenol to give a feverish toddler will appreciate the ease of having such information accessible with the tap of a finger. 

Dr. Raymond Pitetti, associate medical director of the emergency department at Children’s Hospital, was involved in developing content for the app. “We created the app to try to provide guidance for common injuries and illnesses,” he explained. Parents tell him that the most helpful features of the app are directions and phone numbers for the various facilities, and especially the symptom care information. 

Perhaps the best element, Pitetti said, is that all the content is reviewed by physicians at Children’s Hospital, so the app is a resource that parents can trust. “It is the same advice I would give them if they were to come see me,” he said. The app is not meant to replace a doctor's visit, but to guide parents in knowing when to seek professional help. The more information the parents have about their kids’ illnesses, the better the visit will go, Pitetti said.

The TF-CBT Triangle of Life app, the result of a creative partnership among medical professionals at Allegheny Health Network and students at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center, focuses on building resiliency in children ages 8-12. Dr. Judith Cohen, co-developer of Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) and her colleagues developed the app as a tool for therapists to assist their work with children who have experienced trauma such as physical or sexual abuse, violence or the death of a loved one. Once the app was available, though, it turned out that lots of other people were downloading Triangle of Life for their own children to use. 

Cohen is delighted that the app has such broad appeal. “TF-CBT is very effective therapy for traumatized children,” she said. “The game helps children practice changing negative thoughts to more positive thoughts.” Set in the jungle, the app gives the user the role of a lion who guides the other animals through activities to help them choose more positive or helpful thoughts. 

Triangle of Life serves an important purpose, Cohen said. “The challenge is how to help children come up with more accurate and engaging thoughts, and the app provides one tool for kids to learn and practice those skills.”

Whether your interest is in tracking exercise and calories, finding out whether your child’s upset stomach warrants an ER visit or helping children practice skills to build emotional resiliency, a range of apps can serve as helpful tools to accomplish the task.