Pumping up fitness app features may add muscle to workout commitment

Dec. 10, 2018

Fitness apps are easy to download and can help motivate people to start workout routines, but that may not be enough to sustain those routines in the long run. However, Penn State researchers suggest there may be ways to tweak those apps to inspire a deeper commitment to a fitness routine and help users hit their fitness goals.

In a study of how people used a fitness app, the researchers found that certain app features that boosted inner, or intrinsic, motivation—particularly feelings of autonomy, community, and competence—boosted a user’s chance of sticking with his or her workout routine.

Fitness app users often struggle with maintaining a fitness routine, according to the researchers. Rock Health, a technology and healthcare venture fund, reported that about 47.5% of people who started to use a health app eventually stopped participating.

The researchers, who report their findings in the journal Health Communication, said that customization features that inspire autonomy—such as the number of workouts that users can follow and the amount of personal details they added to their app—corresponded to the number of tracked workouts and the amount of weight lifted.

For each workout program the user followed, the weight they lifted went up by 3.2% and the number of workouts they tracked went up 3.8%, according to lead author Maria Molina, a doctoral candidate in mass communications. She added that a unit increase in information disclosed by the user resulted in a 22.3% increase in tracked workouts. Similarly, when the user added more personal data to their profile, they reported lifting about 36.8% more weight.

The researchers said that relatedness, which they measured by analyzing a few factors, including the number of people users follow and the number of people who follow the users, significantly predicted the number of workouts the users tracked and the amount of weight they lifted. However, these effects depended on gender. While the number of followers increased the amount of weight lifted for everyone, the number of people users follow increased weight lifted only among female users. The number of followers also increased the likelihood that users would reach their body fat goals, but again only for female users.

Competence—or the level of proficiency people felt using the app—also linked with their workouts. Molina said that the number of photos a user posts on his or her site is one way to measure the user’s competence. In this study, the number of photographs positively predicted how much weight the user lifted.

The researchers found some differences in why men and women work out. Female users appear more concerned about their weight, while men seem motivated by increasing social recognition and competition, as well as building strength and endurance.

Penn State has the full story

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