Scientists Are Worried Your Fitness Apps Won’t Actually Work


Fitness-focused mobile apps aiming to curb users’ unhealthy behavior have exploded on the market in recent years, with new products coming out every week, even with little evidence confirming that these tools work. A recent Northwestern University study may further reaffirm skeptics’ longtime suspicions about the apps’ effectiveness.

For the study, researchers identified 100 top-selling fitness apps and looked for what they considered to be 93 behavior-changing techniques — including social support, instructions, demonstration, feedback, goal settings, prompt and self-monitoring on behavior. Overall, they found the apps used just 39 life changing techniques, with each using an average of seven.

Researchers also found that nearly half of the apps focused on support and feedback through social support and approval from others. The other group — which accounted for 52 percent of the apps in the study — provided support and education through social support, approval from others, demonstrations and instructions. Researchers didn’t test the apps’ success in helping people become more physically active.

David Conroy, the study’s lead researcher from Northwestern University in Chicago, said that one way to measure fitness apps’ effectiveness could be to look at how many behavior change techniques they use, which are tools that have proven they can help some people modify their behavior. “A lot of these apps, it turns out, are kind of hollow,” he told the Associated Press.

Smartphone apps’ effectiveness has long been a subject of debate, especially among app developers and physicians. Proponents say that apps can lower health care costs and mitigate gaps in access to care, especially since consumers have become more dependent on the internet to independently research symptoms and ailments. But health apps’ potential shortcomings have drawn the ire of some medical professionals.

In 2013, researchers from the IMS Institute of Healthcare Informatics compiled a list of recommendations for web developers that drew on information collected from physician interviews during a months-long study. The researchers said that app developers didn’t have a base beyond tech-savvy consumers and smart phone users. More than 90 percent of the apps mentioned in the report scored less than 40 percent in functionality, a metric measured by how well the instructions guided users in fully using the apps, the ability to record data, and the frequency of reminders for good behavior. The report also debunked developers’ claims that apps would help users better understand their bodies, critiquing the limited information displayed and the vagueness of what the tools measured.

While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has begun regulating mobile apps, particularly those that act similarly to federally regulated medical tools, the agency gave developers some leeway in guidelines that still allow them to create products without much oversight. Some lawmakers said that wouldn’t suffice. In 2013, Rep Mike Honda (D-CA) reintroduced a bill that would authorize Congress to create and fund the Office of Wireless Health within the FDA. The bill, however, died on the floor.

“New and emerging healthcare technologies are being developed every day, often with little support for their long-term reach,” Honda said in a written statement. “This legislation seeks not only to improve healthcare delivery, but to ensure that our government agencies have the tools they need to encourage innovation.”