‘It’s a big deal’ Apple discusses life-changing new health features found on your iPhone

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Apple makes no secret of the fact that it wants its iPhone to be much more than just a way to browse the web, send text messages, and make the odd voice call. Easily one of the biggest new frontiers for this device, that millions of us have in our pockets, is health. As part of iOS 15, which launched across the globe last month, Apple introduced a swathe of features, including ways to share your health data with family, track trends in your overall wellbeing, and even see how steady you are on your feet via something called Walking Steadiness.

These updates can all now be found in the Health app, but it’s Walking Steadiness that could prove to be the most life-changing. While Apple has offered “Fall Detection” for some time on its Apple Watch smartwatches – alerting loved ones when you take a tumble and don’t immediately move to stand up – Apple wants to take things a step further by trying to stop the fall in the first place.

Walking Steadiness is now able to monitor your movement over time and alert you to any worrying changes.

“Research says about 1 in 5 falls results in something pretty serious, it’s a big deal,” Apple’s chief operating officer Jeff Williams told Express.co.uk during a recent chat. “Walking Steadiness is our chance to take things further by saying it’s not only about detection but can we proactively identify when you’re at greater risk.

“Equally important is to then give you some actions to help improve your strength and balance to help mitigate the risk. We use our Fitness+ trainers to present these exercises which are clinically validated. 

“With the iPhone in your pocket, we have so much information. I think Walking Steadiness could open so many doors. We’re excited about it and I think it has the potential to be really profound especially as people age.”

The technology works thanks to sensors in the iPhone that track important mobility metrics, such as walking speed, step length, double support time and walking asymmetry. These are all then used to determine your walking steadiness and classification. An alert appears on the display if there are concerns that you’re a danger of taking a tumble.

Despite the benefits, this option is not switched on by default so iPhone owners will need to manually activate it within the Health app. With some people never realising their walking and mobility has changed, it feels like a missed opportunity for Apple to alert people to an issue they never knew they were suffering from.

Of course, Apple cannot simply enable all features by default. It’s a balance and one that executives at Apple discuss at great length, Williams tell us.

“We talk about this a lot. I think there’s more and more potential to have more features on as default. One of the reasons we have people switch it on is to make sure they are educated about the feature. That’s really key,” the chief operating officer says.

“We’re seeing the profound impact it’s having and I think it’s something we’ll continue to look at whether these features are turned on by default or not.”

As we mentioned earlier, as well as introducing Walking Steadiness on iPhone there are some more big changes available in the Health app including Health Sharing. This update allows users to securely share data about their fitness with loved ones no matter how far apart people live.

Apple says it hopes this will enable users to have more meaningful conversations and provide support – even from afar – as they follow important alerts and changes over time.

Explaining more about the potential benefits of Health Sharing, Apple’s vice president, health, Dr. Sumbul Desai told Express.co.uk: “In iOS 15, you can choose to give a loved one secure visibility into health and wellness data and this means that you can have more informed conversations and support even from afar and follow alerts and changes over time in this data as well.

“I think the thing that we’re most excited about is having conversations about your health, especially with your loved ones who sometimes don’t want to ask for help – it’s a really a beautiful way to engage.

“There are many reasons that people may share data, it could be an ageing parent who wants to share activity or perhaps their heart health data with their family member.

“It’s something that we’re super excited about because we think it’s a really powerful way to stay connected and it’s an opportunity to look at your health.”

Clearly, sharing such personal data across devices may cause some to be concerned about privacy but Apple remains committed to making sure everything stays secure.

“Health Sharing is completely within your control, who you share it with, it’s encrypted,” Williams explained. “Of course you obviously have to trust in the loved one you’ve passed it to, which is part of sharing any data, but it’s not stored by Apple. What is central to the work we do is privacy and we think nothing’s more important than protecting your health information.”

Another update coming to the Health app is trend alerts. Once switched on, iPhone users will be alerted if the device spots dramatic changes in their health or fitness over a period of time. In fact, there are 20 types of data as part of this trend analysis ranging from resting heart rate to sleep to cardio fitness.

A critical part of maintaining personal wellness is tracking changes in health, which can be subtle and easy to miss, and this is why Apple is so keen on users taking advantage of this update.

“Paying attention to your health over time is really where you can get meaningful insights”, said Dr Sumbal. “It’s too often that we focus on those episodic moments and we really want to change the conversation and be more preventive and proactive around your health and so with this feature users view one month to six months of trends.”

One final health feature that Apple has recently introduced is the ability to monitor respiratory rates while you sleep. This has been made available via the Apple Watch and new watchOS 8 software.

This metric can be important in picking up signs of health issues with Dr Sumbal telling us: “Things like elevated respiratory rate when you’re sleeping can be a sign of certain conditions and depressed respiratory rate can also be a sign of other conditions so the idea is just to provide the user with a little bit more insight into what the respiratory rate is doing while they’re sleeping.”

Monitoring sleep patterns have been available on the Apple Watch for a while, but it’s clearly something Apple wants more people to try.

In fact, the new Series 7 device, which launches next week, now has faster charging which could make more users wear their device in bed knowing that the battery can then be refilled before they head out to the office.

“Faster charging is a good thing regardless, but it’s especially important because we want to make it really convenient to wear your watch in the evening and track your sleep,” Williams explained.

“Sleep is so important to your health and wellbeing and we realise the convenience of faster charging makes that possible.”

If you want to try out all these new wellness features the make sure your device is running iOS 15 and then head to Health app on your iPhone to enable them.

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