These days, it seems like there’s an app for everything! And when it comes to apps that track fitness and nutrition, there are no shortage of options. Diet and fitness tracking applications (apps) and wearable technology allow users to monitor their daily activity and meals anywhere and anytime thanks to their mobile design. (3) That means anyone with a smartphone can reap the perks of on-the-go health and fitness tracking. But consumers aren’t the only ones who can benefit from this form of mobile health (mHealth) technology. For practitioners, fitness tracking apps are also improving patient adherence by helping patients stick to their healthcare provider’s recommendations. This empowers the patient, making them an active participant in their health journey. Adding mHealth to a practitioner’s toolbox can also assist the healthcare provider in setting realistic expectations for their patients and measuring their adherence and progress in real time. (9)
What is mHealth?
The term “mHealth” is defined as any medical and public health practice supported by a mobile device like a smartphone, a fitness tracking watch, or the use of a health and/or fitness app. (25) Along with tracking behavior, many of these apps and devices allow for bidirectional communication between patient and practitioner. (3) Some also give users on-demand access to resources like exercise videos and food recommendations. (17) The use of technology has become popular among all age groups. (11) According to a 2019 Gallup Poll, more than one in four Americans currently use a fitness or nutrition app, a wearable fitness tracker, or both. (19) As mHealth technology evolves, its use among consumers and practitioners is likely to increase. (29)
Benefits of fitness tracking apps and wearables
Depending on the app or the type of wearable, mHealth users can enjoy a variety of features and benefits, including:
- Activity challenges
- Body temperature tracking
- Daily calorie tracking (consumed and/or expended)
- Exercise videos
- Goal setting
- Heart rate and heart rate variability
- Motivational cues
- Prompts and reminders
- Reward systems (e.g., badges, leaderboards)
- Sleep quantity and quality
- Step tracking
- Water consumption
- Weekly progress reports (14)(15)(18)(22)
How mHealth apps help ensure patient adherence
Software apps have the potential to play an important role in motivating patients and enhancing compliance to diet and exercise recommendations. Apps and wearable devices also enable sharing data that can inform practitioners while encouraging users to work toward their goals and do better each day. (20)(32) Some health and fitness apps even enable individually tailored feedback directly to patients. (9) Studies suggest that personalized intervention via an app is more effective for changing health behavior than generic prompts. (30) During one eight-week pilot study, 56 middle aged adults received either a fitness app or no app at all. By the end of the study, the researchers from the University of British Columbia found that those who received the app self-monitored their progress more frequently than those without the app. The app users also exercised more—7.2 times per week compared to just 4.7 times in those not using the app. (30) In another trial, 80 patients with musculoskeletal conditions were prescribed a four-week home exercise program. Half the patients were given a paper handout with the prescribed exercises, while the other half were set up with an mHealth app. Those in the app group also received supplementary phone calls and motivational text messages. By the end of the study, the researchers noted that those using the app were significantly more likely to adhere to their home exercise program than those given the handout. (13) These findings were reinforced in a meta-analysis of 11 studies that involved 1,351 people who used smartphone apps and text messaging. (6) One of these studies noted that among initially sedentary adults, those who received daily feedback, goal setting, and mobile device support increased their moderate to vigorous physical activity by 178 minutes per week compared to the control group, whose activity level actually dropped by 80 minutes. (12) Did you know? Up to 75% of patients don’t follow through with traditionally dispensed exercise recommendations. (2)
Key features that improve adherence
Not only do health and fitness apps provide support and allow users to record and track their progress, they often provide guidance on how to perform specific exercises or tips on food choices and preparation. As valuable as these tools are, their ultimate effectiveness often relies on the following elements.
Compared to joining a gym or hiring a trainer and a nutritionist, fitness apps are a cost-effective way for users to begin their journey toward better health. (26)
Ease of use
Ease of use increases adherence, particularly among older users. (7) For those who have never downloaded an app, research cites a lack of literacy when it comes to technology. For many who have tried a health and fitness app but stop using it, this same research notes that users often complain that apps take too much time and effort. (23)(31)
While millennials have a reputation for gamifying everyday tasks, employing this strategy can increase engagement and adherence to diet and exercise recommendations across all age groups. According to researchers at Brigham Young University, apps and wearable fitness trackers that include game-like elements have better odds of changing behaviors. (16) These elements foster goal-based systems, rewards and penalties, and competition, and include motivational triggers like points, timers, badges, and leaderboards. (27)(33) Many apps also provide online communities, virtual challenges, and push notifications providing praise and reminding users to “keep it up!” One study of healthy 50-something adults found those who used gamified health and fitness technology that included progressive goals, activity tracking, and rewards were more likely to stick with the program. (10)
The ability to provide real-time data is an important feature in health and fitness apps and devices. According to findings in the journal Frontiers in Public Health, providing real-time results on the time spent exercising, as well as the intensity of that exercise, can often give users the motivation they need to work out harder and/or more frequently. (28)
Apps that include the ability to share data with a user’s practitioner or simply with friends have been shown to enhance its use. In one study of 1,274 adults who used a fitness app, researchers at Australia’s Flinders University found that those who shared their progress and gave or received encouragement were more likely to engage in regular exercise and continue using the app. (24) Did you know? The ability to share data allows a practitioner the opportunity to track a patient’s progress and provide them with timely tips and motivational texts. This, in turn, has been shown to help patients reach their health goals. (9)
Popular fitness and food tracking apps
Health and fitness tracking apps continue to gain popularity among consumers. Statista, a German data and statistics provider, notes that the leading mobile fitness and workout apps recorded 16.2 million downloads worldwide in January 2021—an 80% increase over the previous year. (5) Unless otherwise noted, the apps listed below are available for either iOS or Android platforms.
Best free fitness apps
Some of the top-rated free fitness apps include:
- Map My Run tracks and maps your runs. You can also explore activities like CrossFit, cycling, gym workouts, walking, or yoga.
- Nike Training Club contains nearly 200 workouts that cover cardio, strength training, yoga, and more without the need for gym equipment.
- Paceline offers gift cards as rewards for hitting exercise milestones. This app, while free, can also be paired with Apple, Fitbit, and Garmin watches and fitness trackers.
Best paid fitness apps
Some of the best paid fitness apps include:
- Apple Fitness+ offers a huge library of workouts that can be streamed to any Apple device. Stats and health data can be shared with others, including practitioners.
- Obé provides 22 live studio-style fitness classes daily plus 5,400 on-demand workouts including Barre, boxing, dance cardio, HIIT, Pilates, strength training, and yoga.
- Peloton may be best known for its spin bikes but this stand-alone app boasts live and on-demand classes for a variety of workouts such as bootcamps, cardio, cycling, weight lifting, and more. It also provides periodic challenges and lets users set up training goals.
Best workout apps for weight loss
The following workout apps support maintaining a healthy weight:
- 8Fit Workouts & Meal Planner allows users to set up a custom exercise and diet plan to meet their weight loss goals. Along with personalized meal plans and daily reminders, 8Fit explains how various nutrients and workouts can benefit your health and fitness.
- Fitness Buddy not only provides hundreds of progressive workouts, it also offers personalized meal plans and recipes to help users meet their weight loss goals.
- My Fitness Pal contains a huge food database, barcode scanner, and calorie counter to help users track their nutrition.
Best workout apps for men
The following apps were designed specifically with men in mind:
- Centr was developed by Chris Hemsworth and provides workouts, recipes, and healthy life hacks from renowned trainers, chefs and wellness experts. Workouts include functional fitness, HIIT, MMA, and more while meal plans can be tailored for those who practice gluten free, paleo, pescatarian, or vegan diets.
- FitBod helps users develop a custom workout designed to push their limits with or without equipment. The app’s training algorithm guides users on the right amount of weight to use as well as the right number of reps and sets to meet their goals.
- ROMWOD stands for Range of Motion Workout of the Day and promotes flexibility through guided mobility workouts designed for those who participate in CrossFit, HIIT, running, weight lifting, or other intense types of training. Works with iOS only.
Wearable tracking devices
Wearable devices like FitBit and Garmin watches or Oura rings work with corresponding apps to allow users to share their exercise frequency, progress, and health information with family, friends, and clinicians. Increasingly, these wearable devices also have the capability to monitor other health markers like body temperature, ECG, heart rate, menstrual cycle, recovery readiness, sleep quality, and VO2max. Wearable trackers have gained popularity among athletes. However, they have also proven useful for people over age 50 and those with a chronic illness. (21)
Fitness tracking watches
Fitness tracking watches are among the most popular types of wearable fitness trackers with FitBit watches or trackers being the most commonly owned. (14) Other popular tracking watches include the Apple Watch, the Garmin Watch, Misfit Shine, and the Polar Fitness Watch. (8) Watches can either be used alone or in conjunction with a variety of apps.
Developed in 2015, the Oura Ring is designed to be worn 24/7. Sensors within the ring track activity progress, body temperature, readiness, resting heart rate and heart rate variability, and sleep quality and quantity. It also provides weekly progress reports that can easily be shared with clinicians. According to a recent study comparing the Oura ring to the Samsung Gear Sport smart watch, the ring provided more accurate sleep data. (1)
The bottom line
Studies show that the use of fitness tracking apps and wearable devices helps users meet their fitness and nutrition goals and improves treatment adherence. By employing strategies like ease of use, gamification, and the ability to share data, apps and wearable devices have increasingly become an important part of a consumer’s health toolkit.
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