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Social Components of Health and Fitness Apps Surge in Recent Years

Woman pressing a button on an Apple watch

The once-missing piece in health apps—identified by Josh West—may facilitate behavior change

Dr. Josh West and his colleagues analyzed health and fitness apps shortly after they first appeared on the app store. In fact, their study —“There's an App for That: Content Analysis of Paid Health and Fitness Apps”—was one of the first of its kind.

Users in this study “coded” apps into different categories, such as predisposing, enabling, or reinforcing. An app labeled as “reinforcing” provided social networking, encouragement, or evaluation from oneself or a coach, whereas apps coded as “predisposing” or “enabling” provided knowledge or information, similar to what one could learn from a book.

Not surprising for its time, this study showed that apps were least likely to be labeled as “reinforcing.” Dr. West et. al concluded that the lack of social support “[appeared] to be a missed opportunity given the capacity of emerging mobile device technology.”

In another study, Dr. West and his colleagues found the presence of health behavior theory constructs to be “largely absent” in health-related apps. Additionally, they concluded that users of these apps “would benefit from mutual collaboration between public health practitioners and app developers.”

A decade later, we see that health and fitness app creators jumped on the opportunities that Dr. West et. al cited as missed, especially when gyms closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Apps are more social and interactive than before. Professional fitness trainers often provide tutorials and feedback, something missing from older apps. In 2019, German company Plan.Net took this concept a step further when it launched Butterfly Coach, an app that provides an AI personal trainer available to the user 24/7.

Moreover, a recent study looked at the social components of physical activity apps (e.g., sharing posts, providing or receiving encouragement). It concludes that “competitiveness” promotes physical activity from app use and “should be taken into consideration when leveraging physical activity apps.” Competitiveness may be a key component of the once-missing social component in health and fitness apps.

However, social comparison on the other hand ultimately leads to lower physical activity. Healthy competition can promote physical activity, but users should avoid unhealthy comparisons.

To hear more about technology and behavior change, listen to Dr. West’s feature on the Y Health podcast.

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