University of British Columbia study: personalize your health apps if you want them to work

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A study out of the University of British Columbia – Okanagan has found that fitness apps are far and away more successful for users when they set individualized goals and allow for contact with a “real live trainer,” the university said in a press release Thursday.

Led by Assistant Professor Mary Jung at the university’s School of Health and Exercise Sciences, the study is an affirmation that access to potentially fitness-improving apps does not necessarily turn into significant engagement.

“More than ever before, mobile apps provide an opportunity to provide real-time feedback and support to the public and specialized health populations,” Jung said in a press release. “In order for app users to reach their full potential, we need to ensure that they stay engaged and are provided with the best support.”

Comparing a control group to one group which had personalized feedback, self-evaluation built in and forced users to set goals, the latter was shown to have exercised far more. The findings will be published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research under the title, “A Theory-Based Exercise App to Enhance Exercise Adherence: A Pilot Study.” The study was funded by the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research.

The findings would stack up with other sobering numbers for the emerging mHealth market. Despite the low cost of acquisition and high engagement, these devices and apps suffer from low retention, with a reported 42% of people dropping use of fitness trackers after six months.

Nike Fuelband (CC BY-SA 2.0 Intel Free Press via Wikimedia Commons)
Nike Fuelband (CC BY-SA 2.0 Intel Free Press via Wikimedia Commons)

The report might be skewed though, as the control group for the eight-week study did not actually use non-personalized apps themselves. Another question is whether or not those who entered the study were more inclined to use the app because they had volunteered. Everyone in the app-using group finished the eight-week training program. Twenty-eight adult volunteers were randomly assigned to each group according to the study’s published report abstract.

“There are more than 150,000 mobile fitness apps that are designed to get people moving, yet few Canadians are actually meeting Canada’s physical activity guidelines,” Jung added. According to Statistics Canada, only 13 percent of boys and 6 percent of girls were getting the recommended average of 60 minutes of “moderate-to-vigorous” exercise per day. UBC’s press release says 15 percent of Canadian adults exercise for the recommended 150 minutes per week. “Technology, such as apps, have the potential to assist in improving physical activity levels, but they must be based on sound health behavior change evidence for this to work.”

The market research and consultancy firm research2guidance estimates that the mHealth app market will slightly more than triple in value between 2015 and 2020, going from $10 billion to $31 billion. Another forecast by Statista puts the mHealth market value at $59 billion by the end of the decade. “Currently, the majority of mHealth apps struggle to achieve sufficient download volumes and only a few app publishers stay afloat from the revenues generated by their apps,” the Research 2 Guidance report released in their findings, forcing companies into a number of business models.

Despite the odds, lot of big names and small startups are still trying to power through in this space. The Nike+ FuelBand has been on the market for a while, while Xiaomi health tracker is trying to muscle in with one of their trackers priced at $23. Samsung and Apple have already been integrating fitness tracking into smartwatches, working directly with native apps on their phones. Devices are also extremely diverse, such as the Intel-backed smart glove company out of Munich ProGlove or IoT clothing produced jointly by StretchSense and StartToday.

While interest from the industry (and healthcare providers) in the mHealth market appears to be growing, there are some signs that it still has a number of hurdles to overcome when it comes to being effective. A two-year study published two weeks ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association called “Effect of Wearable Technology Combined With a Lifestyle Intervention on Long-term Weight Loss” found that a group of dieters not using wearables were more successful at losing weight than those using new-age tech. That hype is likely exaggerated though, as the report stated that, “both groups had significant improvements in body composition, fitness, physical activity, and diet, with no significant difference between groups.”

It could also be that with the health wearables market still extremely young, startups and hardware makers are still refining their technique for motivation, training and dieting. When it comes to developing technology that will improve our health, it is worth remembering that this is a marathon, and not a sprint.

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