Can fitness apps make us fit?

Right now if you have a smartphone and an interest in living a more active lifestyle there are literally tens of thousands of fitness apps available that can help you track every step, set activity goals, and even play (or compete) with a friend. Surprisingly, despite the popularity and wide range of fitness apps — there isn’t a whole lot of scientific research out there showing that they actually work.

“My experience is that someday I feel like I should exercise, and then I will download one of those apps in the hope that they will help me,” said Mo Zhou, a third-year IEOR graduate student who has just launched a new study to research fitness apps, “And then after a week, I never check the app again.

PhD student Mo Zhou is investigating how
mobile health apps can change exercise behavior

PhD student Mo Zhou is investigating how mobile health apps can change exercise behavior

Zhou’s experience is not uncommon. Research shows that most people have a hard time sustaining any type of long-term behavior change. The hope of mobile health applications is that they can help people change their behavior for the long-term without (costly) clinical intervention.

So, to investigate the effectiveness of fitness apps, Zhou (under the guidance of Assistant Professor Anil Aswani and Professor Ken Goldberg, and as part of a larger research team with Professor Phil Kaminsky; Graduate Student Yonatan Mintz; Undergraduate Students Jessica Lin, Smita Jain, Emily Ma; UCSF Associate Professor Yoshimi Fukuoka; and UCSF Assistant Professor Elena Flowers) has built her own mobile health application and launched an on-campus study with UC Berkeley staff and students as subjects. Zhou is not only interested to see if fitness apps can make a difference, but also interested in understanding which app features may be most effective in motivating physical activity, “No one has really looked at how these different features can motivate people to exercise more. We want to look at this problem on the scientific spectrum to see if they really work.”

In the first of three studies which launched with sixty-five UC Berkeley staff in September, Zhou is investigating whether or not dynamic goal setting will improve subjects’ daily steps. Her app sends a notification in the morning to subjects to set their goal and will send another notification in the evening to notify subjects whether or not their goal has been reached.

While this may sound pretty standard to the fitness app connoisseur, Zhou will go beyond most fitness apps out there by setting goals using an algorithm that accounts for the subject’s baseline activity level, reaction to previous notifications, and most novel — the subject’s self-efficacy or confidence in their ability to meet a goal. For some of us, meeting goals is more motivating than it is for others. Zhou believes understanding the psychological factor is an important (and understudied) element.After the first study is completed, Zhou will launch two more studies with UC Berkeley students as subjects. In the second study, she will compare her dynamic goal setting algorithm with a simple version and investigate push notifications further to see how frequency, context, timing, and other factors may affect behavior.

Zhou is excited about the third study which investigates the social factor of fitness apps. For this phase, she will again ask UC Berkeley students to participate and will split them into groups to try to understand how competition and cooperation may work to change behavior.

In one group, individuals will compete against each other. Each individual will be able to see how they rank on a leaderboard compared with others. For another group, she will randomly assign two-person teams to compete against each other. For a third group, she will use an algorithm to assign two-person teams based on their baseline activity levels with the goal of forming teams in a way to make it as competitive as possible. The last group may be the most interesting — Zhou will recruit students in pairs to join the study as friends and compete against two-person teams.

“In terms of cooperation in physical activity intervention, there is not a lot in the literature,” said Zhou, “So, it will be interesting to see how people actually will behave. I would think that if I am cooperating with a friend and we are competing in something, I would feel bad if I am not doing well and she is doing most of the work.”

While mobile applications have the potential to make a big difference (consider the extra calories burned by the Pokémon Go craze), it is still unclear which features are most sticky and best for changing long-term behavior. With Zhou’s research, we will hopefully be able to shed more light on best strategies fitness apps can employ to help us all get moving.

This article was originally published in the IEOR Fall / Winter 2016 newsletter