When fitness apps first came on the market in 2010, they were heralded as an exciting new way to monitor our fitness levels and motivate us to exercise more.
Movement sensors and GPS tracking on fitness bracelets, headbands and smart watches made it possible to trace exact routes and even congratulate us at the end of the run or walk. Many people embraced the challenge of 10,000 steps (itself an arbitrary distance that originated in a Japanese device Manpo-Kei ) with new gusto as smartphones counted them for us.
In the last 10 years, wearable fitness apps have been linked to or replaced by more sophisticated smartphone apps which offer activity tracking, personal training videos, meal planning, daily meditations and motivational articles.
Prof Niall Moyna from the department of preventative medicine at Dublin City University says their use is expected to increase further over time. “Apps are great motivational tools for those who want to kick-start or maintain exercise programmes. Self-monitoring devises that track our health and fitness allow people to take ownership of their fitness and are part of the rise in individualised medicine in the 21st century.”
It is now estimated that about 10 per cent of all apps are fitness apps. The best ones include good demonstration videos and tutorials; voiceovers that remind you of things a gym instructor would remind you of; allow you to set your own pace and even detect if you’re overtraining. Push notifications offer reminders for scheduled workouts or inspirational quotes to motivate (or annoy) users.
However, while this all sounds like technology at its best (apart from the notifications which are particularly irritating if you cannot fit in that workout) some experts are now highlighting the downsides of fitness apps.
A new study at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) examined how fitness apps affect the wellbeing of the user. The research looked specifically at the potential for fitness apps to lead to obsessive behaviour and burnout in the long term.
“The majority of exercisers are now using digital technology to track and share their workout data to support their fitness goals. But these fitness apps can be a double-edged sword,” says Dr Eoin Whelan, senior lecturer in business information systems at the JE Cairnes school of business and economics at NUIG.
Dr Whelan says that while fitness-sharing apps can help start and sustain exercise routines, some users may develop obsessive tendencies and exercise too much.
The study found that people who use self-tracking on fitness apps to give support and encouragement to others are more likely to have a harmonious approach to their exercise and ultimately lower life stress. However, people who use self-tracking on fitness apps to receive praise and public endorsements for their exercise activities are more likely to develop an obsessive approach to physical exercise and suffer higher life stress over time.
“Fitness app social features which promote self-recognition such as posting only positive workout data or photos can be linked to maladaptive perceptions of exercise and burnout in the long run,” says Dr Whelan. In contrast, fitness app social features that offer support to colleagues’ activities are healthier, the study found.
We have had feedback from companies who make health technologies who are keen to figure out ways to develop digital rewards for people when they shouldn’t train
The research, which studied 270 people involved in cardio-intense physical activity, also flags to employers the risks and responsibilities of giving employees free fitness apps and incorporating fitness apps into employee wellness programmes.
“If the organisation supports fitness-app use among employees, they should also be responsible for ensuring the employee maintains control over their exercise patterns,” says Dr Whelan.
He suggests organisations could monitor the exercise-log files of employees and assess these for signs of exercise obsession. “We have had feedback from companies who make health technologies who are keen to figure out ways to develop digital rewards for people when they shouldn’t train – either because they are exercising too much, they have an injury or they have another important commitment. Sometimes, people become so obsessed with their gym sessions that they can’t focus on work assignments,” says Dr Whelan.
However, Dr Whelan and his co-researcher, Trevor Clohessy from the department of business information systems at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, also acknowledge that further studies with walkers, runners, triathletes and swimmers using different fitness apps is needed to generalise the findings as their study only looked at cyclists using the Strava app.