Are fitness tracking apps worth it?

Dr Audrey Duncan of Dundee University's Institute of Sport and Exercise recommends a mixed-methods approach to keeping fit. Photo: ISE

Dr Audrey Duncan of Dundee University's Institute of Sport and Exercise recommends a mixed-methods approach to keeping fit. Photo: ISE

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We talk to Dr Audrey Duncan of the University of Dundee’s Institute of Sport and Exercise about the true value of fitness apps and wearables

With 13.5 million fitness trackers sold worldwide in 2014, sales of the devices are expected to increase to 25 million this year, despite professional concerns over the accuracy of their measurements. Does this new trend signal a change in fitness habits, or is it really all just marketing hype?

Fitness apps won’t exercise for you, but they may provide that extra bit of motivation to help you track your progress and reach (and celebrate) your goal

Dr Audrey Duncan, Sports Science Manager at the University of Dundee

What are the main benefits and drawbacks of fitness apps?

“The main benefit of fitness apps is that they can be motivational. They can tell you when to exercise (or when you’ve not exercised enough), allow you to track your progress over time (perhaps earning virtual rewards for each milestone), share your progress for others to see and/or compete against (providing accountability) and they can also set goals for you (which are hopefully realistic and attainable). Knowing what to do, when to do it, and that someone will know if you don’t do it, can be the simple step it needs for someone to embark on or sustain a change in physical activity.

“But the key to any physical activity change is sustaining this new behaviour. While there are some good short term research studies that show a high retention rate, and improved behaviour change, with fitness apps, some recent US consumer research indicates that more than half of individuals who have owned an activity tracker no longer use it and a third stop using it within the first 3 months. Is this because they’ve given up exercising or because the activity tracker has served its purpose and they’ve moved onto something else?”

What would you recommend the first course of action to be for someone interested in taking up a fitness regime with a fitness app?

“If an individual hasn’t exercised before, or it has been a while, they should really speak to a health professional and/or their GP to get advice about the most appropriate exercise for them to start with. Then they need to do a bit of research about what is the right fitness app for them. They all have varying price tags and varying content so it’s important to get one that’s right for them.

“The key to behaviour change with physical activity is finding something that you can do and that you enjoy. The same is true for an app – if it’s too sophisticated, or you are worried about your data protection, or the programmes aren’t right for you, you won’t use it. Find one that suits you and your lifestyle.”

Generally, do you find popular fitness apps such as Runkeeper, Nike+ or FitBit a help or hindrance to those wishing to stay fit?

“Incorporating regular physical activity into an individual’s life is important. Physical inactivity has been identified as the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality with being overweight or obese the fifth. In 2014, the Scottish Health Survey identified that 65% of Scottish adults (over 16 years of age) were overweight or obese and 37% of Scottish adults didn’t meet the recommended guidelines for physical activity.

“Everyone is different and anything we can do to motivate someone to start and keep active is a good thing whether that’s an app, a fitness band, a personal trainer or an encouraging friend. Fitness apps won’t exercise for you, but they may provide that extra bit of motivation to help you track your progress and reach (and celebrate) your goal.”

Can a fitness app ever replace a personal trainer?

“Fitness apps and personal trainers are not mutually exclusive and appeal to different needs. In the past, we would have had access to training programmes in magazines or on web pages – fitness apps are just bringing these to a wider market and making them more accessible and sophisticated. A personal trainer, though, provides that human contact who can individualise your programme for you, check your technique, and provide you with the right level of encouragement. They will be offended if you don’t turn up – your app won’t!”

Dr Duncan, in her role as Sports Science Manager of the Institute of Sport and Exercise, has extensive experience with the University’s Preva system. Members of the Institute can use an RFID wrist band to sync up with the machine they are exercising on. The Preva app then allows them to set goals and track their progress, but they also have the option of consulting with on-site gym staff allowing them to get the best out of both the app and their personal trainer.

A popular beginner’s programme is the NHS’s own Couch 2 5k for complete beginners who want to take up running as a form of exercise.

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