Some people swear by them. Others brush them aside. The evidence, of course, falls somewhere in between. Some insights into what makes fitness apps effective.
According to a market research estimate by Accenture, by the end of 2017, nearly 1.7 billion people on this planet will have at least one mHealth app installed on their smartphone. With literally thousands of fitness applications in the market claiming to get you in shape, there is uncertainty over how effective these apps actually are.
The evidence offered by various research studies is inconclusive. Making the case for fitness apps is a study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research that says people who use exercise apps are more likely to exercise during their leisure time than those who do not use exercise apps.
The study surveyed 726 participants, broken into three groups – those who never used exercise apps, those who used exercise apps but discontinued and those who are currently using exercise apps. The study showed that nearly three-quarters of current app users are more active compared to less than half of non-users and past users.
The study concludes that exercise apps may be improving exercise levels and health outcomes by making it easier for users to overcome barriers to exercise, such as lack of ready access to information, lack of interest and motivation, and lack of access to exercise facilities, etc.
And making the case against fitness apps is a study of more than 200 apps by Penn State University which found that a large of fitness apps are ineffective as they incorporate only a few behaviour-change techniques. The team identified the most commonly used techniques as providing instruction on how to perform exercises, modeling how to perform exercises, providing feedback on performance, goal-setting for physical activity, and planning social support/change.
"Our results suggest that there are far fewer behavior-change techniques described in apps than in interventions, which are delivered in-person to help people increase their physical activity," said David Conroy, professor of kinesiology.
However, this does not necessarily mean that apps are less effective, because it is possible that a number of techniques included in the in-person intervention packages are inert. We suggest that users should consider their needs carefully when selecting a physical-activity app.
Complementing the above two findings is a new study by Lynn Katherine Herrmann and Jinsook Kim from Northern Illinois University, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research. The study is a theory-based examination of mobile fitness app usage of three apps over five months by 47 participants to assess adherence and effectiveness using a framework based on the Theory of Planned Behavior. It found that –
- Attitude of participants toward exercising with apps shifted from slightly positive to neutral over the course of five months. However, app users have a more favorable attitude toward exercising with apps than non-users. This suggests that once they are familiar with the usefulness of app, users may become more positive about it.
- Participants found it more difficult to use the apps over time, which is the opposite of what may be expected. App makers must keep this decrease in perceived behavioral control in mind when designing app.
- The expected frequency of exercise with apps (behavioral intention) decreased after 2 weeks. This indicates that the perceived ease in exercising with apps decreased.
- However, fitness perception did not change in users and non-users. Therefore, using or not using a fitness app has no impact on the importance a user gives to being fit. This again is contrary to the expectation that if apps improve awareness of users’ fitness levels, then they would be more inclined to engage in exercise activities.
- Users may experience diminished perceived behavioral control over exercising with apps if apps were seen as an external force that was more controlling of the user (such as, the user having to input information or having to log in every time the app is to be used) than the user controlling the app.
- The decrease in the app usage was at its most significant from Month 1 to Month 3. This suggests that app users decide the usefulness of the app quite early on in usage.
Finally, the study concludes that to increase app usage and effectiveness, apps should be designed with theory-based or evidence-based content and tested against behavior-modification outcomes, before the apps are made available to the public.
Unless the current fitness app usage more deeply understood and apps are designed on the firm foundation of health behavior science frameworks, the fitness of fitness apps remains questionable.