Do Fitness Apps Even Work?

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02__MG_8950_r_AaronRichterPhotographed By Aaron Richter.
When I’m bored with my usual exercise routine, I turn to apps like Nike Training Club to help get me from Point A (putting on my gym clothes) to Point B (actually completing a workout). It’s sort of like I get my own mini-trainer without having to fork over tons of dough. Here's the catch: Even though the main draw of apps and videos is the added push of a virtual sweat-buddy, a new study found most fitness apps lack science-backed motivational techniques.

Researchers from the Department of Kinesiology at Penn State looked at the 200 highest-ranked apps within the “health and fitness” category on both iTunes and Google Play. Using online descriptions (Note: not actually testing the apps themselves) the researchers then analyzed the apps' content using CALO-RE, a list of common behavior-change techniques that help people change their physical activity and eating habits.

Of the 200 apps examined, 167 involved physical activity. Within that list, the most common services provided were educational, such as instruction (how to correctly perform an exercise) and feedback on the user's progress. Goal-setting and planning techniques were found in some of the apps, but none touched on other proven exercise motivators such as time management, self-talk, use of imagery, or follow-up.

Previous research indicates that one in five smartphone users make use of at least one health-related app, and 38% of those users have downloaded an app for exercise. So, there’s obviously something that’s compels us to try these tools. But, according to this study at least, most of these apps include a limited number of proven behavior-change methods.

Of course, while this study is certainly interesting and may affect our attitudes toward fitness apps, it’s hard to get over its obvious limitation: The researchers relied on descriptions of apps rather than testing them out, thus ignoring their actual usability and functionality. Plus, it’s possible some of those science-backed motivational techniques do exist within certain apps — despite being missing from their descriptions.

Inconclusive studies aside, there's no reason to give up a motivational technique that works for you. If Nike Training Club or another one of the dozens of fitness apps in existence encourages you to get in a workout, then hey, keep at it.

What are your thoughts on all the apps out there? Do they work for you?