Does your​ Smartphone app help you to be more physically active?

photo of woman wearing pink sports shoes walking
Photo by Daniel Reche on

Physical activity is an essential component of wellbeing. Globally, the number of physically inactive people is increasing, in part due to our modern living that includes long commutes and desk-based office work. Many don’t meet the recommended 150 minutes a week of moderate activity. Community efforts like – “healthy eating, active living” have engaged grassroots partners to help people get healthier by increasing opportunities to be active. We are over a decade into the era of Smartphones and iPhones now come with the Healthkit app, which makes tracking steps seamless. Does having an ability to quickly assess our activity make us more likely to engage in activity? Has having smartphone derived steps made us smarter about exercise?

A new meta-analysis (a study of studies) published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research by Ameilia Romeo and colleagues from the University of New South Wales, Australia shows we have some way to go to better leveraging technology to improve rates of physical activity. The authors analyzed over six thousand papers and found six that met criteria that examined the impact of physical activity apps on steps per day.

Bottom line, findings suggest that smartphone app-based physical activity assessment had a modest positive effect on steps but only increased counts by 450 additional steps per day when compared to controls. This positive effect was not statistically significant. The study looked at app use to increase physical activity in addition to apps that also addressed diet and exercise, or a multi-component behavior change, findings indicated better results for app use tracking physical activity alone. The outcomes also suggest intervention effects didn’t hold beyond eight weeks.

Does this mean that app-based physical activity interventions don’t work? On the contrary, the modest positive impact of app-based physical activity points to an accessible and ubiquitous way to measure steps given over 77% of people own a smartphone. The paper also highlights both the quantity (over six thousand) and quality (six) of studies that met the bar for inclusion in this meta-analysis.

Future work should focus on how to build on and sustain tracking past eight weeks to keep people engaged with physical activity over more extended periods. The rigor of this study also points to how mature app derived data sets are becoming, and this is good news as more sophisticated insights are developed to guide future interventions. The reality is apps alone aren’t the solution as context matters so continuing to layer app utility onto community-based efforts to support public transport and walkability remain important in broader efforts to shape the environment to promote better health.

Thanks for reading – Trina
(Opinions are my own)



Can Smartphone Apps Increase Physical Activity? Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.

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