On iTunes alone, there are more than 1,500 fitness software applications or "apps" from which to choose. In 2011, nearly 10 percent of cell phone users downloaded at least one of them to help track or manage their health, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center Internet survey.
In an effort to find out if any of these smart phone and tablet apps are actually effective, researchers at Brigham Young University in Utah analyzed 127 popular downloads and rated them for their ability to get users to change aspects of their lifestyles. Most apps fell short of this goal because, the researchers found, they weren't based on the sound scientific theories proven to spur real behavioral change.
Lead author Sarah VanWagenen said the most common sin committed by a fitness app is lack of customization. "The majority don't ask for age, height, weight or any kind of basic health information," she said. "You just sign up and they give you a program and some advice based on general recommendations."
Each app was scored based on features that promoted motivation, social networking, accountability and behavior tracking. According to VanWagenen, these are the tried and true features of any high quality behavior change program. The highest scoring app the team looked at was the hypnotherapy aid Sport and Fitness Excellence. It received a 28 out of a possible 100 points. The average score was 10 and more than a third of the apps received scores in the single digits.
Clearly there is room for improvement, VanWagenen said.
Part of the problem may be a disconnect between app developers and the social scientists who study behavior change. At this point, most developers are gamers or social media developers. Very few have backgrounds in public health or psychology.
Not that developers are against learning some lessons from traditional behavioral change models designed in labs. It's just that the world of app development moves so quickly. According to Brian Wang, the co-founder of the firm that markets the social networking app Fitocracy, there aren't the time or resources to review the literature or consult research experts.
"Based on my past ten years of experience, the common thread to success is a sense of community and strong social bonds. Without fail it works. We didn't need a controlled study to tell us that," he said.
Wang claimed that nearly 20 percent of Fitocracy members are active users and that about five percent are "super users" whose log-on time adds up to several hours per day. "Users are treating us like Facebook. It's where they come to stay in contact with likeminded people and all that support really makes a difference to them," he said.
VanWagenen doesn't necessarily disagree with that assessment, but said that social engagement is only one tool for successful behavior modification. For example, an app like Fitocracy may be appealing for someone who has already made the decision to make changes, but it may not be a draw for those who are still undecided about starting a program. On the other hand, a popular app like the diet diary MyFitnessPal may attract people who like the focus on counting calories but may ultimately lose a lot of users due to lack of social support.
VanWagenen does say that apps have been getting better as time goes on. Though the Brigham Young study was just published, the apps her team reviewed were offered by the iTunes app store in 2009. It takes time to do a study and get it published. Many of today's most popular apps weren't yet available.
And, VanWagenen said, many developers are stumbling into some good use of theory whether they know it or not. For instance, sites like Fitocracy plan to up their game in the near future by placing a lot more value on user feedback. Their long term plans include "crowd sourcing," techno-speak for pooling and analyzing aggregated data so they can spot trends and report them back to their users. They could mine the data from say, Fitocracy members who lose the most weight over a six-month period, and then use that information to lay out a diet and exercise blueprint for new users with the same goal.