In an age where fast food joints are making food that’s unhealthier and less expensive than ever before, Lyfts cart us everywhere we go and Netflix makes sitting on our asses easier than getting up and going outside, getting fit and staying in shape have never been so difficult.
It’s no secret that the world’s population is getting fatter and that people are exercising less, and tech companies would be remiss not to at least take note of this. So, with the influx of self-driving cars and revolutionary smart phones and VR headsets, someone, somewhere along the way had the idea that we could be doing more with technology and fitness.
Enter the fitness app.
Everyone from Tim Cook to celebrity fitness trainers and major brands are buying into the hype and using them, and it seems like there’s another new fitness app or piece of fitness tech being released every single day.
But, do they work? Can the stuff on your wrist or in your pocket replace good old-fashioned hard work?
Some people swear by them, while others think they’re just gimmicks. As it turns out, the research is a little less conclusive than you’d think:
The Case For Workout Apps
In the last few years, we’ve seen the fitness tech market explode with a plethora of wild new products. From smart watches and other wearables, to apps designed for everyone from gym rats to yogis, we’ve seen it all—and then some.
For the people who utilize the tech, you’re likely to hear glowing feedback about them. “MyFitnessPal helped me lose the weight,” “My Apple Watch helps me stay active,” “Nike + helped me lay down more miles on the track”—People don’t just use these things; they become brand evangelists of sorts.
But that still doesn’t answer the difficult question: do they work?
Well, some research suggests they do. A study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research says fitness apps absolutely do promote positive behavioral changes. The team surveyed 726 participants in three groups—current app users, non-app users, and former app users—and discovered that almost 75 percent of current app users reported being more active, as opposed to under half of non-users and former users.
The researchers concluded that on any given day, exercise app users are more likely to exercise during their leisure time, as compared to those who don’t use any apps. Their research also found that these apps made it easier for users to overcome “barriers to exercise” (procrastination, lack of motivation, etc.), which is kind of the whole point of fitness apps to begin with.
In an interview with Mic, associate professor of psychology at Lander College and one of the study’s authors, Leib Litman, says that they sought to prove that exercise apps could help make exercise more accessible to those who use them, and they succeeded.
“Exercise apps can be a vehicle for behavior change in exercise in the same way that a nicotine patch can be a vehicle for behavior change in smoking,” Litman says in the interview. “Our main finding was that people who have a lot of barriers appear to obtain higher levels of self-efficacy when they use exercise apps.”
Other research suggests that fitness apps definitely work, but are especially effective when they’re personalized to the user. When features include things like training goals, specialized diets or contact with “real live trainers,” people are more motivated to work out more consistently.
For the study, Mary Jung, an assistant professor at UBC Okanagan’s School of Health and Exercise Sciences, teamed up with an unnamed fitness app company to implement a couple features like goal setting, personalized feedback and other key elements of health behavior change to their app’s users, and then monitored exercise levels in app users and non-app users. Lo and behold, the study showed that the group who did not use the improved version of the app experienced no changes in their daily routine, while the test subjects who did, exercised more.
The Case Against Fitness Apps
So, clearly, based on the research, fitness apps totally encourage people to work out more, right? Eh, not quite. There’s also plenty of research out there that suggests fitness apps don’t have the impact on peoples’ fitness routines they’re given credit for.
A team of researchers at Penn State University analyzed 200 apps—paid and free—in the Google Play and Apple iTunes stores, and found that they drastically lacked behavior change techniques in their marketing materials.
Their research concluded that there are two dominant groups of fitness apps—motivational and educational—and that the descriptions of those apps, on average, included less than four behavior change techniques.
David Conroy, Professor of Kinesiology at Penn State and one of the lead researchers in the study, says in a press release that the app marketplace is largely unregulated, and users often select apps based solely on a developer’s description of the app—which is obviously problematic.
“Our results suggest that developers have not incorporated many behavior-change techniques to date, and there may be opportunities to integrate behavioral science to make apps that are more effective for helping people who seek to change their behavior and become more active.”
So the research there basically says that fitness apps have the potential to help people, but because they’re often made by amateurs and sold on a market that’s mostly unregulated and motivated by download rates, it doesn’t bode well for those apps’ actual effectiveness. But even then, it suggests that there’s a bigger problem with the market, not the practicality of fitness apps themselves.
Additional research from a team at Carnegie Mellon University is a little less optimistic. The survey, which sampled 2,000 men and women ages 18-34, found that people who were already healthy found health and fitness apps useful, while the same percentage of people who weren’t going to the gym and being healthy found those apps to be useless.
The translation? People only find health apps useful if they’re already being healthy, and there’s no real proof that health and fitness apps will help people who aren’t actively trying to be more… well, active.
And, of course, there’s the research that says these apps aren’t just unhelpful, but will actually hurt people trying to live more active and healthy lifestyles. Data from a research team out of Northwestern University suggests that these apps are causing people to lose crucial steps in the workout process, including one of the most important—self-monitoring.
Dr. David E. Conroy, Ph.D, the lead author on the study, says that self-monitoring is an incredibly important behavioral change involved in the workout process, and that a lot of this tech enables people to lose sight of their progress.
“The process of thinking about when you were active during the day and the opportunities you missed for being active is an important part of behavior change,” he says in the study. “The sensors [in tracking apps and fitness tech] enable you to skip that important step.”
But it’s not all bad. Conroy says technology can also be very useful to the process, noting that fitness log apps like MyFitnessPal are awesome in helping people self-monitor themselves better.
So Who Do We Believe?
At the end of the day, who should you believe? Should you delete your Nike+ app and just go run the old fashioned way and delete MyFitnessPal and write your calories down with a notepad and paper, or should you embrace the fitness tech revolution and keep on keeping on?
Since the research supports both positions, it’s important for you to take control of your workout and decide for yourself what’s right. Far as we’re concerned there’s only one question to ask: do the apps you use help you get out there and stay active?
If the answer is yes, and you’re one of those people who does stand when their Apple Watch tells them to, then absolutely, keep it. But if you’ve become self-reliant on apps to make you feel like you’re making progress (even when you’re not), or you think a fitness app is somehow going to make you have to work less hard in the gym, then it might be time to reconsider and go back to doing this the old-fashioned way.
Working out is a personal thing, and there’s no real right or wrong way of doing it. If it helps you stay motivated to get out there and run or throw weights around in the gym, then that’s what’s right.
- Lead image: angel + dren / Instagram