Fitness apps are a popular means of tracking progress in the gym. A recent study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity provided a glimpse into what the landscape of available apps looks like.
What Makes an App Effective?
The researchers noted that any kind of intervention aimed at improving health needs to be based on behavior change in order to be effective. One of the key components to an app’s effectiveness is the behavior change techniques it uses. Without these components, change is a lot less likely to occur, as indicated by the masses of people who ignore advice on how to become healthier every day.
A further boon to effective apps is tailored feedback. One advantage an app offers, as opposed to reading a book or writing in a workout log, is that an app can actively use your own characteristics and workout data to customize its responses. Customized data isn’t just a fun feature – it’s also been shown to be more effective than generic information.
Research Focus and Results
The focus of the research was on whether or not the existing apps employed behavior change techniques and personalized feedback. To do this, the researchers scoured iTunes and Google Play to find fitness apps. After searching, they downloaded and looked at the features of 64 apps, both free and paid. Only apps that included tailored feedback were included, so that base was covered. The apps were then rated based on the number of behavior change techniques used. There are a total of 23 techniques.
On average, the apps used five of the 23 techniques. 91% of the apps scored within one point of this average. This should tell you that each app was similar in terms of promoting behavioral change. Indeed, this held true no matter which online store the app was purchased from or whether it was paid for or not.
The greatest disparity in score was also only a difference of three points in either direction. In other words, the lowest score was two, and the highest score was eight. The app that had the most features promoting behavior change was RunKeeper, with a score of eight. Incidentally, RunKeeper and the six apps that scored a seven were all free. Here’s a list of the seven best-scoring apps:
The lowest scoring app was Activious, with only two behavior change features. Out of the nine apps that scored a three, four cost money.
The most commonly used features were providing feedback on performance (used by all the apps), self-monitoring, and goal setting. Several techniques, like stress management and identifying barriers to success, were not used by any of the apps.
In theory, apps can be useful for promoting health and fitness. This is true whether you’re just getting started or need to adjust your existing health and fitness habits. This study helped identify which apps will help you be most successful.
Bear in mind that the number of behavior change features is not the only way to rate a fitness app, nor does a greater number of such features necessarily ensure you will like one app more than a lower scoring alternative. However, it does help us determine which apps are most helpful in the long run. And one thing is for sure – when it comes to fitness apps, you don’t necessarily get what you pay for, as the best apps in this study were free.
1. Anouk Middelweerd, et. al., “Apps to promote physical activity among adults: a review and content analysis,” International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2014, 11:97
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