With 81 per cent of Australians using smartphones and the majority of those no doubt keen to lose weight/exercise more/run faster/be more mindful/quit smoking, it’s no wonder the health and fitness app industry is booming.
Smartphone users have more than 58,000 health apps at their fingertips and, if Victoria is anything to go by, more than one-quarter of us have downloaded at least one. But are they a waste of time and money?
To answer this question, VicHealth has released a Healthy Living Apps guide that rates more than 200 apps on functionality and their ability to motivate people to change their behaviour.
“We had a whole range of key terms and popped those into the search panel for app stores across Apple and Android platforms, and what we got back was over 58,000 apps,” VicHealth researcher Dr Annemarie Wright says. “We had to cull that list. The app had to be in English, had to have a user rating of 2.5 stars or more, suitable for the Australian context so used imperial measures, and designed to improve or maintain health in a general sense.”
Not one gets full marks, with the top score of 3/5 awarded to just a handful.
However, before you decide to give the glowing icons the flick, there’s more to consider than a rating out of 5. The biggest let-down for apps reviewed for the guide wasn’t their functionality – most scored more than 3/5 in this category – but their potential for changing a person’s behaviour. In this area, 2.5/5 was the top score and five apps were dealt 0/5.
These results are no shock to exercise physiologist Neil Russell. “I’ve told the most committed people what to do and eat to achieve a health goal and have them still struggle to do it – every trainer has,” Russell says. “So it doesn’t surprise me to hear that health and fitness apps aren’t particularly effective at changing behaviour.”
Paul Penna, a sports psychologist and former personal trainer, adds, “Change is difficult and if people aren’t fully invested in their goal, it’s almost impossible.”
However, Wright says health apps shouldn’t be let off the hook just because making them effective is a challenge.
“I don’t think expecting these apps to make goals more attainable is asking too much of them,” she says. “Most of the apps reviewed showed potential for changing a person’s behaviour, it’s just that there’s a lot of room for improvement.” When it comes to the apps currently on offer, Russell says that how beneficial they are depends on how close a person is to their goal. “When looking at motivation to exercise, for example, most of your motivation in the early stages will come from external sources, like people telling you that you’re doing a great job,” he says. “Some apps have in-built encouragement but I find it’s most effective coming from a person.
“It’s also a lot easier to delete an app or turn notifications off than it is to ignore calls