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Not all fitness apps are created equal, health experts say

POSTED: April 3, 2015 12:29 p.m.
Kelsey Dallas/

People hoping to get healthy with the help of fitness apps should look for the features that fit their personalities.

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People wear it on tank top straps, tuck it in a pocket or fasten it to their wrist. They bring it up at work meetings, give it to others as a gift and monitor the measurements it records at the end of each day.

It's the Fitbit, and it has taken the fitness world by storm.

In 2013, Fitbit accounted for 67 percent of activity tracking device sales, far surpassing numbers reported by competitors like the Jawbone UP, according to a study from the NPD Group. The next year, the company launched a global ad campaign to raise awareness of its products among even the most casual exercisers.

One popular commercial from the campaign, viewed more than 3 million times on YouTube, shows men and women wearing their Fitbit while completing a comical variety of activities: skateboarding, playing ping pong, dancing, tightrope-walking and jumping over a fire pit, to name a few.

At the end of the ad, the screen reads, "Find your fit," reminding potential buyers they can personalize their tracking device like they personalize their workouts.

Capitalizing on technological advancements that allow users to easily collect activity data, smartphone fitness applications or apps, and wearables like the Fitbit have revolutionalized the art of exercise.

But a recent study, published in January in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (paywall), determined that popular apps haven't taken cues from behavioral science, meaning they aren't very effective in improving someone's fitness routines. For example, 79 of the top 100 fitness apps sold in the Apple iTunes and Google Play marketplaces embedded some form of social support into their system, although research is uncertain if that's a successful motivational strategy.

David Conroy, one of the study's co-authors, said the near homogeneity of the fitness app market becomes problematic when it exchanges tried-and-true behavior change techniques for newer, flashier methods.

"We're being swamped by data," even though data collection from the bathroom scale to the doctor's office blood pressure cuff isn't an effective source of motivation for every exerciser, he said.

Conroy and other health researchers have some advice for people looking to download an app or buy a wearable device, and it sounds a lot like Fitbit's slogan: Not all apps are created equal; find the fitness technology that works for you.

The promise

From 2011 to 2013, smartphone ownership among U.S. adults grew by more than 20 percentage points, increasing from 35 percent of Americans to 56 percent, according to Pew Research Center.

This surge in popularity was good news for the mobile fitness industry and health care providers alike, because smartphone technology holds the potential to promote a healthier world, wrote Rebecca Silliman, the director of communications for MyFitnessPal, in an email.

"The smartphone is the device that's with you 24/7, with a tremendous capacity for capturing relevant data," she said.

Smartphones can count steps or track the distance of a run. They can also host apps that incorporate more sophisticated health data collected by devices like the Fitbit, such as heart rate or blood pressure.

For example, someone who wears a Nike FuelBand — another Fitbit competitor — on their wrist can go for a run, sync the device to their smartphone with bluetooth technology afterwards and then use an app on their phone to analyze and measure how many steps they took and calories they burned compared to previous workouts.

Conroy and his colleagues acknowledged these services at the beginning of their study, explaining that the inspiration behind their work was the opportunities created through smartphone fitness apps.

"(Fitness apps) hold promise for promoting behavior change and reducing non-communicable disease risk," they wrote. Non-communicable illnesses include weight-related issues like diabetes and heart disease.

However, by focusing almost exclusively on social support and data-related services, the mobile fitness industry is forfeiting some of its potential, said Conroy, a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University.

He offered the example of automatic activity tracking, which is now a standard part of most apps. Designers assumed convenience would be an attractive quality, failing to account for the health benefits of self-reporting, Conroy said.

"Self-monitoring is the process of making people think about their behavior. They report the time they spent engaged in physical activities during the day, comparing it against their goals," he said. "We know from (past research) that health interventions that include self-monitoring are 60 percent more effective than those that don't. … It is very curious that a lot of these apps have off-loaded that self-monitoring work into sensors in the phone."

The ever-evolving nature of the fitness app industry means developers are regularly adding new features and adjusting old ones, Conroy said, but the study illustrated how changes seem to be inspired by technological advances rather than behavioral science.

Finding your fit

The good news for fitness app consumers is that it's still possible to find personalized solutions in a market where each option seems like more of the same, said Dr. Connie Chen, chief medical officer and one of the co-founders of the fitness app Vida.

The process requires people to think critically about what type of motivation works best for them and be willing to leave an app or wearable behind when it's not producing results, she said.

To-do-list types could find a fitness app that prioritizes making exercise plans, and chronic overeaters can turn to MyFitnessPal, with its robust calorie-tracking tools. And for those overwhelmed by options, there are apps built around producing personalized plans, Chen said, highlighting Vida's reliance on health coaches who check in with users about their progress and offer exercise plans.

The key to finding fitness app success is determining which product will keep you engaged day after day, she said. "No matter how interesting an approach, if people don't stick with it, it won't work."

Another lesson to keep in mind is that fitness apps "aren't going to be silver bullets," Conroy said. Getting fit still requires old-fashioned hard work and sweat.

Additionally, the high-tech world of Fitbits and apps shouldn't keep people from making time for the activities that make them feel good, even if they won't max-out calorie or fat-burning scores.

"It's not all about fun, but fun's a good place to start," Conroy said.
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