5 Features on iPhone, Apple Watch Useful for People with Diabetes

A woman with a glucose monitor using a smartphone.
These features available on your Apple Watch and iPhone can help people living with diabetes manage the condition more easily and efficiently. Halfpoint Images/Getty Images
  • Apple has announced five features on the iPhone and Apple Watch that can be useful for people living with diabetes.
  • These include Activity, Cycle Tracking, Sleep, Medical ID, and third-party apps.
  • They also reported on studies showing how activity levels and the menstrual cycle can influence blood sugar.
  • Experts say third-party apps are especially useful in managing diabetes.
  • However, Apple’s built-in features like its Medical ID can also be helpful.

Managing diabetes can be challenging. It requires people to remain vigilant about monitoring their blood sugar and they must be consistent with taking their medications. Additionally, it is important for people with diabetes to eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise.

However, Apple is aiming to make this task easier with both its iPhone and Apple Watch.

Together with the American Heart Association and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, they are conducting the Apple Heart and Movement Study, which seeks to study the association between physical activity and heart health.

Additionally, they have teamed up with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences for the Apple Women’s Health Study, which aims to learn more about the interplay between lifestyle and demographics and menstrual and gynecological health.

Most recently, coinciding with National Diabetes Day on November 14, 2023, they shared new findings indicating how these two studies are improving our knowledge about diabetes care.

They also explained how five particular iPhone and Apple Watch capabilities can be used to improve diabetes management.

What the studies revealed about blood sugar control

The studies reported findings relevant to two areas of concern when it comes to diabetes: activity levels and the menstrual cycle.

Activity levels and blood sugar control

Activity levels in particular had a positive effect on blood sugar control.

The researchers found that when people increased either how long they exercised or the average number of steps that they took each day, their blood sugar remained within the target range of 70-180 mg/dL for a greater amount of time.

Additionally, the participants who exercised over 30 minutes daily stayed in this range 78.8% of the time.

Also, those who identified as female and walked more than 10,000 steps per day remained in this range longer than those who identified as male.

Dr. Calum MacRae, PhD — a cardiologist, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and principal investigator of the Apple Heart and Movement Study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital — said, “These data demonstrate that exercising at the right levels can improve how each of us deal with metabolic challenges to reduce the risk of diabetes or to improve the control of diabetes if it does develop.”

MacRae further called it “exciting” that the integration of exercise and continuous glucose monitoring data using Apple HealthKit can be used to help people improve their blood sugar control and reduce their risk for heart disease.

Menstrual cycle and blood sugar control

When it came to the menstrual cycle, there appeared to be hormonal influences that affected blood sugar.

There was a slight increase in the amount of time women remained in the target blood sugar range during the follicular phase when compared to the luteal phase. Progesterone is lower during the follicular phase, according to the study authors.

The researchers also reported findings related to polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a condition that involves various hormonal imbalances. Having PCOS and a body mass index above 30 kg/m2 is linked with insulin resistance which leads to higher blood sugar levels.

They found that people with PCOS spent less time in the target blood sugar range during the follicular phase than those who did not have the syndrome. Also, this trend carried over into the luteal phase.

Dr. Shruthi Mahalingaiah, MS, FACOG — assistant professor of environmental, reproductive, and women’s health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and co-principal investigator of the Apple Women’s Health Study — commented on the study saying, “This preliminary analysis may pave the way for a more in-depth examination of the relationship between menstrual cycle phases and glucose levels, offering potential implications for diabetes management.” 

iPhone and Apple Watch tools for diabetes management

Apple highlighted five iPhone and Apple Watch features that it says are relevant to diabetes management, based on the studies that they are collaborating on as well as other research.

Activity app

The Activity app can be a great way to increase your step count or otherwise work toward increasing your activity levels. Apple states that this app will allow you to set goals, record duration, and receive reminders if you haven’t yet met your exercise objectives.

Cycle Tracking

Cycle Tracking does just what you’d expect: It tracks your cycle, predicts when you’ll get your period, and estimates ovulation. It can also tell you where you are in your cycle, which may be helpful in blood sugar management given the impact of hormonal fluctuations on blood sugar.

Sleep

Research shows that problems with sleep can affect blood sugar. The Sleep app allows you to set a sleep schedule and receive reminders of when it’s time to relax and get ready for bed. It can also track how well you are sticking with your sleep goals.

Medical ID

The Medical ID, which is included in the Health app, allows you to record information about your medical conditions and any medications that you are taking. It can be shared with medical personnel in the event of an emergency.

Third-party apps

Apple noted that several third-party apps designed to track and measure blood sugar are available. Some of these are even integrated with the Apple Watch, allowing you to view your blood sugar directly from the watch’s face. Additionally, some apps will allow your family members to download an app that they can use to keep an eye on your readings.

What the experts say about these features for managing diabetes

Out of all of these features, it seems that the experts are most enthused about third-party apps.

Dr. Jacqueline Lonier, Endocrinologist and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, noted that smartphones and devices (including the iPhone and Apple Watch) can generally be linked with diabetes devices such as glucose meters, insulin pumps, and continuous glucose monitors.

“If you are using one of these devices,” she said, “a smart phone can be a great addition to your diabetes management tools as you can easily view your glucose data or manage your insulin pump directly from an app on your phone.”

When it comes to nutrition, she feels that apps like Calorie King or MyFitnessPal are great ways to keep track of your food and carbohydrate intake.

Catherine Rall, a Registered Dietitian with Happy V, agreed, saying, “Third-party app functionality is the big one here. The ability to more fully connect with existing blood sugar-tracking apps will allow people with diabetes to keep a closer eye on their levels and carry one less device around to do so.”

Rall further noted that the Medical ID feature can be life-saving if someone is experiencing a blood sugar crash.

“It’s probably cheaper to get a standalone device for diabetes management,” she added, “but if you’ll make good use of the Apple watch’s other features, it can be a good purchase.”

Her recommendation for the best app for blood sugar management is OneDrop.

“It has all of the really essential data tracking features, it’s available on both Android and iOS, and it’s free,” she said.

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