Despite a whole new cohort of exercisers relying on fitness apps to keep them moving while gyms were closed, do apps have the staying power to keep users engaged now that more options are opening up? Or are they just another gadget used by fitness fanatics to track their personal stats?
Apps boast a slew of features, but one of their main pitches is providing motivation for anyone who needs prodding to get moving. Yet one of the strongest predictors of whether exercise sticks is the source of that motivation: does it come from within, or are external factors behind the desire to make exercise a habit?
Most dedicated exercisers list enjoyment, personal achievement and dedication to their overall health and well-being as factors that motivate them to pull on their workout gear. Exercising to please others or bowing to social pressure to lose weight or be more active has a less than stellar track record of motivating exercisers on days when it’s easier to sit on the couch.
Another important factor in creating lifestyle change is having a support network to offer high-fives and the occasional push when necessary. Making exercise a habit is hard enough, and without support from those around you, the chances of success diminish considerably.
To their credit, app developers have leaned into the science behind exercise adherence by tracking and rewarding personal achievement and creating communities of exercisers with the same interests. To gauge just how effective they’ve been at motivating exercisers, a team of Australian researchers decided to poll a large group of fitness enthusiasts about apps.
Recruited through social media and questioned about their exercise habits, motivations and whether or not they used a fitness app, the 1,274 respondents ranged in age from 18 to 83, spent an average of 271.6 minutes per week engaged in physical activity and were primarily women (87.6 per cent). Over half reported using a fitness app, with 25- to 44-year-olds significantly more likely to do so than older respondents. Fitbit, Strava and Garmin were the most popular apps, with a high percentage of users (37 per cent) stating they used the app daily and only 13 per cent claiming they used an app three times a week.
Similar to results published in other studies, the app users reported engaging in significantly more physical activity.
As for social support, 64 per cent used an app that featured its own proprietary community of users, of which 41 per cent said they considered themselves a part. A whopping 92 per cent of app users said they interacted on social media platforms regarding their physical activity — a statistic that shouldn’t be that surprising, since they were recruited through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Researchers reported that app users who engaged with an online community — thereby getting encouragement — or interacted with the social features of their app accumulated more exercise minutes than those who didn’t.
Those aren’t the only discoveries they uncovered about exercisers who prefer working out with apps. Turns out they’re a pretty competitive group.
“Individuals with higher levels of trait competitiveness engaged in significantly higher levels of physical activity, suggesting that those with a general disposition toward competition may benefit most from using apps,” said the researchers.
It’s clear that app developers know how to tap into the psyche of exercisers who love a good challenge. The more popular apps include features like leaderboards, monthly challenges and badges to reward those who continue to push their limits. While some of the competition is between members of the app’s larger community, a fair number of exercisers are content competing against themselves. Among this group, improving personal statistics — like the number of steps taken per day/week/month, most consecutive daily workouts or the length of time it takes to finish a workout — is the type of motivation that makes exercise happen.
Of course, the key to using an app for motivation is finding one that appeals to your particular interests. If competing against others in your demographic makes you want to pull on your exercise gear, then choose an app that connects you with a large community of fitness fanatics who strive to be at the top of the leaderboard. But if you’re looking for an app that provides the kind of motivation that simply gets you off the couch, consider one that offers reminders to get moving, helps you set modest goals and gives you high-fives when you achieve them. The good news is there’s no shortage of apps to choose from, and most are free to try. And according to the Australian researchers, they work.
“Commercial physical activity apps are clearly beneficial given their widespread reach (and) acceptability by the population at large and, based on the current findings, are associated with certain psychological constructs (i.e., social support, self-efficacy and motivation) which have been linked to increased physical activity behaviour,” they write.