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5 Ways the Internet Can Help You Boost Your Health

DEU, GERMANY, Bonn: Living in old age: Senior couple surfing in the internet with their notebook computer.
DEU, GERMANY, Bonn: Living in old age: Senior couple surfing in the internet with their notebook computer.
(GERMANY OUT) DEU, GERMANY, Bonn: Living in old age: Senior couple surfing in the internet with their notebook computer. (Photo by Yavuz Arslan/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Harvard
 
Use it as a source of health information, a tracking tool, a direct line to your doctor, and a link to loved ones.

A connection to the Internet is a powerful tool, linking you to just about all of the knowledge in the world. And you can use that tool to help improve your health. “Our research shows that many older adults aren’t taking advantage of that. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a valuable resource, and I’m cautiously optimistic that it will make a difference for most people,” says Dr. Kasisomayajula Viswanath, a professor of health communication at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

If you don’t already spend a lot of time online, it may seem overwhelming to use such a gigantic information source. Or maybe you have a hard time pressing buttons, using a mouse, or reading text. Dr. Viswanath says it may help to enlarge the type on your screen and have a computer-savvy friend set up shortcuts to useful websites on your device. Then give it a try, and see what the Internet can offer you. Here are some possibilities.

1. A resource for health topics.

 
For example, you can learn about the symptoms and treatments of particular illnesses, look up how often you need routine health screenings, watch videos showing how procedures are performed, read medical studies, and find information about medication side effects and interactions. But be careful. “There’s a lot of unreliable and even kooky information being provided by quacks offering their opinions,” says Dr. Viswanath. He advises you to be cautious about which websites you use. Stick to large research, teaching, or government institutions, or trusted organizations such as the American Heart Association. An easy way to note a website’s source: look at the ending of the website address. An address ending in .com is a commercial website, so its content is likely to be designed to promote or sell a product. Organization websites end in .org, education websites end in .edu, and government websites end in .gov. Not surprisingly, we’re proud of our own website: www.health.harvard.edu. Check it out.

2. A way to connect socially.

 
People who stay in touch with friends and family tend to have better health. The Internet makes it easier to communicate with loved ones: it has email; social media websites like Facebook that allow you to post photos and updates about your life, and view the posts of your friends and family; and live video applications like Skype that let you and another person to see each other as you talk (great for the grandkids!). Joining online support groups can enable you to share similar experiences with other people. Does connecting with people online stave off loneliness or depression? “We don’t have evidence to prove this, but in terms of family connections, these sites are very helpful,” says Dr. Viswanath. “Just keep in mind that the Internet is not a replacement for face-to-face interactions with people; it’s a complement.”

3. A link to health care providers.

Your doctor, hospital, or insurance company may offer a portal, a portion of a website that enables you to look at your personal information in a secure way. A portal gives you access to your medical records and test results and provides a means to ask for prescription refills and send questions to doctors. “Privacy is a big issue, and accessing one’s records requires that your institution have an extremely secure website,” says Dr. Viswanath. But he cautions that while the portal may be secure, your own computer or tablet might not be. Get a program on your computer that protects it from viruses and from spyware—programs that secretly steal your information.

4. A source for diet and nutrition information.

Find expert advice about how to eat healthier, as well as recipes, nutritional content of foods, and eating plans. These are useful tools to help you control weight and avoid chronic disease. You can also watch cooking videos, look up restaurant menus and nutrition data, and even get tips on growing your own vegetables. “And use websites that let you track what you eat and how many calories you’re consuming,” says Dr. Viswanath.

5. A helpful exercise resource.

 
Most of us need 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week. Use the Internet to look at lists of suggested workouts, watch exercise videos, find out how to do an exercise properly, or locate exercise classes in your area. Discover exercises such as yoga or tai chi, plot out walking paths, and read reviews of wearable exercise trackers or exercise equipment. “There are also websites that help you keep track of your activity and suggest when you need to increase your exercise or change your routine,” says Dr. Viswanath.

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