Behavioral Change Techniques Lacking in Most Fitness Apps

29 Jan


Earlier this year, the American Journal of Preventative Medicine issued a report regarding the effectiveness of fitness applications. While their studies showed that apps provide much opportunity for social networking and feedback, most apps were seriously lacking in behavioral change techniques.

Behavioral change techniques, also known as BCTs, are techniques that directly help app users to modify their physical activity in significant ways. 

The study reviewed the 100 top-ranked physical activity apps and analyzed them for the existence of BCTs. Using a classification process according to 93 specific kinds of BCTs, the Journal reported that only 39 types of BCTs were present. On average, only six BCTs were present in any given app.

Now just about half of all American adults own a smartphone, and roughly half of those users access health information through their mobile phones. Also, about 50 percent of mobile users have at least one fitness app. These apps regularly provide certain types of BCTs: social support through online communities like Facebook, how to perform an exercise, exercise demonstrations and feedback, as well as information about others’ approval of a technique. While these are critical BCTs for self-improvement, the study found that most apps were lacking in the breadth of their BCTs.

Furthermore, the study found that app developers favored BCTs with a modest evidence base over others that had a more established effectiveness rate. David E. Conroy, PhD, the lead investigator, stated that “not all apps are created equal, and prospective users should consider their individual needs when selecting an app to increase physical activity.” In one example, he mentions that social media integration for providing social support is a very common BCT in apps, but he goes on to say that the BCT of active self-monitoring by users is much more effective in increasing activity.Perhaps the cause of the lack of self-monitoring BCTs is a result of development around mobile device capabilities. For example, accelerometers serve to passively monitor the movements of the mobile user, but they do not incite the user to participate in some form of exercise. Moreover, there is little evidence of retrospection or active self-reporting with these apps – BCTs that experts agree are most effective for changing behavioral activity.

The American Journal of Preventative Medicine didn’t suggest that Americans eschew fitness apps; the study simply showed where these apps are lacking. The potential of fitness apps in our society should, in fact, be lauded. Most apps do have many benefits, and exercise BCTs will most likely help a sedentary person to get moving. Since insufficient physical activity is the second-leading preventable cause of death in the United States, Americans should take advantage of fitness apps that can help them to increase their daily activity.

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