WWDC: Why you’ll use Apple’s Breathe app

It only takes a minute, and you might feel better

Apple, WWDC, iOS, Apple Watch, mHealth, digital health, Breathe

Breathe: It's probably not bad for your health.

Credit: Moyan Brenn/Flickr

We all breathe, right? So why does Apple think an app to help us do it makes any sense at all? That’s crazy talk, isn’t it?

Not entirely

While most people take it for granted, there’s some evidence that breathing matters; like the way you sit, breathing incorrectly may be bad for you while doing so correctly can reduce stress and enhance concentration.

“Just doing some deep breathing can have some great benefits for a lot of people, whether they’re taking a break from a busy work day or winding down for the day,” said Jay Blahnik, Apple’s director of fitness for health technologies.

That's why Apple at WWDC introduced its Apple Watch app, Breathe. It ships with watchOS 3 in Fall.

watchbreatheapp Apple

How it works

When you launch Breathe it will tell you, “Live a better day by taking a minute to Breathe.”

In use, the app prompts you to focus on breathing for one minute every four hours, by default. Each session consists of seven breaths, but you can extend the time and set the breathing frequency if you wish.

When the session begins you’re asked to remain still and to focus on your breathing. A blue-green mandela graphic slowly emerges on the watchface, expanding and contracting in time to your breath.

If you want to close your eyes as part of your exercise the app offers haptic feedback (taps) so you know when it’s time to exhale. Used with the new sharing features of the Activity app you’ll even be able to compete at heavy breathing (?) with family and friends.

Does it work?

Live Science points out that most of the existing literature on deep breathing techniques comes from studies that have been of limited duration or taken across small sample groups, so there are critics of Apple’s app, but there is evidence of the benefits all the same.

A South Korean study found burn patients using breathing exercises felt less pain and anxiety when doctors treated their burns than those who didn’t. A Tufts University study found breathing exercises helped people deal with the anxiety they felt before taking tests. It’s also pretty helpful to people who suffer panic attacks.

Breath-based meditation (such as that supported by the Breathe app) has been shown to reduce the brain’s DMN activity, boosting relaxation and focus. Studies suggest reducing such brain activity has an impact on stress, depression and activity.

Harvard Medical School says deep breathing can “slow the heartbeat and lower or stabilize blood pressure.” It can also help soothe breathing conditions like emphysema.

"You can influence asthma; you can influence chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; you can influence heart failure,” said Dr. Mladen Golubic in 2010.

Clearly there is plenty of evidence that shows taking a moment to breath can have positive impact on your health.

watchtrio Apple

What Apple did

While developing Breathe, Apple says it tested the app among hundreds of employees and an advisory group of psychology and mindfulness experts.

The company found that for the best relaxation response the exhale should be longer than the inhale.

It chose to put the app out with a default setting in which you inhale for four seconds and exhale for six, though you can personalize this.

In a way, Breathe is a good illustration of the importance of checking medical evidence when choosing and using health-related apps. "More and more care will be delivered outside hospitals and clinics," Ovum's lead Healthcare & Life Sciences analyst, Charlotte Davies told me.

This is why self care apps will become increasingly important.

It is also why app users should consider any health related claims made by app developers. There’s no point using apps built on bad science that may be bad for your health.

Apple’s move to invest in researching Breathe means you’ve less to worry about on that score, but it makes sense to explore the available evidence when choosing any health-related app.

But do try to catch your breath.

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