Researchers find benefits of fitapps depend on users' motivation

Thursday, January 16, 2020 Press Office
Press Release

A study into how fitness apps can affect users, conducted by Dr Trevor Clohessy, GMIT School of Business, and Dr Eoin Whelan, Cairnes School of Business and Economics, NUIG, has found the apps can lead to both positive and negative wellbeing outcomes, depending on the person’s social motivation for using the app. 

The findings show that people who use fitness apps for supporting and encouraging other exercisers are more likely to have a harmonious passion for their exercise, and ultimately lower life stress.  In contrast, people who use the app for social recognition (i.e. to receive praise and public endorsements for their exercise activities) are more likely to develop an obsessive passion for physical exercise and suffer higher life stress in the long run.

It found that to motivate people to exercise, modern physical fitness apps such as Strava, Nike+, MyFitnessPal, RunKeeper, and Fitocracy are gamified to provide a variety of rewards to users based on the tracking and analysis of their digital trace data e.g. the number of steps walked per day, calories burned, or average speed of a cycle or run.

The market for fitness apps has exploded in recent years as people turn to self-tracking and gamification to motivate and sustain physical activity.  For instance, in the United States alone, 92 million people use fitness apps contributing to a market volume of US$602.0m in 2019 (Statista 2019).

The study flags to employers the risks and responsibilities of giving employees free fitness apps and incorporating fitness apps as part of employee wellness programmes.  It suggests that if the organisation supports fitness app use among employees, they should also be responsible for ensuring the employee maintains control over their exercise patterns. One suggested solution proposes it could be for the organisation to ensure that they operationalise a risk-based approach with regards to their employees' use of the fitness applications on an ongoing basis which are in line with their existing Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies within the organization.”

Co-author Dr Trevor Clohessy, Department of Enterprise and Technology, GMIT School of Business, says: “Fitness applications have become the norm in modern Ireland. Users of such applications can range from intercounty footballers right through to people who solely use them to enhance their wellbeing and mental health. Our findings suggest that the social elements embedded within these fitness applications (e.g. ‘likes’, ‘sharing’, ‘posting’ ‘comments’) can have a “Janus effect” that is they can have both positive and negative impacts on the users. From an ethical perspective, fitness app designers need to draw from our study and exploit social influence to promote healthy outcomes. This could be in the form of badges promoting harmony, for example when a user does not exercise when they are injured, or an automatic feature alerting the user to the onset of obsessiveness.”

Dr Eoin Whelan, NUI Galway, says: “These fitness apps can be a double-edged sword.  Our study suggests fitness sharing apps can certainly help seed and sustain exercise routines, but there is a danger that some users may develop obsessive tendencies, which need to be avoided.  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.  In contrast, fitness app social features which promote reciprocation, such as giving support and commenting on colleagues’ activities, are likely to lead to adaptive outcomes.” 

A copy of the full study, published in the journal Information Technology & People, is available on request.  The research was based on 272 people involved in cardio-intense physical activity. 


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