Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Fitness apps: A fad or an agent for behavior change?

Whether worn on a wrist or downloaded to a smartphone, mobile fitness apps are becoming a more popular way to track physical activity.

“For the last 12 years, I’ve seen people in their search for fitness and many people do not ever find it," said Lynn Herrmann, an assistant professor at Northern Illinois University’s College of Health and Human Sciences, during a Tuesday morning Annual Meeting session on “Increasing Physical Activity: There's an App for That!” “Technology is giving us some hope that people will get there.”

But while there are benefits to mobile fitness apps, such as being free, low-cost and easily accessible, Herrmann and other presenters agreed that owning a fitness app doesn’t automatically lead to behavior change.

For example, Ralph Turner, associate director of research at HealthCore, led a FitBit tracker study of over 940 Anthem Inc. insurance employees after the company’s leadership voiced concerns about workers’ sedentary lifestyles. Participants were split into people who used the FitBit to track physical activity and those who used the FitBit in conjunction with a fitness coach.

Overall, he found a high rate of people who stopped using the tracker: 46 percent  stopped use after three months, 61 percent after six months and 79 percent after one year. People who already exercised stopped using the electronic trackers too, though at a slower rate than those who didn't exercise, he said.

Additional interventions that go hand in hand with fitness tracker use should be based in psychology, Turner noted.

“These devices are extremely popular,” Turner said. “But they’re not going to get you up off your butt and get you walking. But there’s room for growth. There’s promise and perhaps over the next decade, we’ll see movement in this area.”

For five months, Herrmann’s study tracked three apps used by 47 people whose average age was about 44 and who exercised at least four times per week.

Across all three apps, users reported liking the workout variety and number of activities. However, use dropped significantly, with participants citing difficulty in use and difficulty in navigating across all three apps.

Herrmann said in an ideal world, research on how people actually use mobile fitness apps would inform the development of new apps, and such development would be rooted in evidence-based health behavior research.

“It’s not being done,” Herrmann said. “This is a direction we need to head.”

— N.M.

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