Psychology of Fitness AppsI recently had coffee with an old friend – she was sporting a brand new Fitbit watch she had purchased a few weeks prior and was clearly very proud of. “So, what can it do? What’s the functionality?”- I wondered. “I don’t have the slightest idea!” – was my friend’s response.

All right, I thought, you are not the first person to buy an expensive new gadget as a fashion statement rather than a strictly functional tool. Numerous celebrities nowadays seem to be sporting Fitbits, Jawbones, Nikes and what not. Of course, many people would simply jump on the bandwagon without giving it much analysis. But then, might there be a positive psychological effect from simply wearing a fitness watch, or downloading a fitness app?

Do Fitness Apps and Trackers Bring Results?

A $330 million industry worldwide, digital fitness trackers are currently the most popular type of wearable device. Fitness apps, likewise, occupy the #1 spot as the most popular type of health apps. However, this area being relatively new, the psychology of fitness apps and trackers has not yet amassed a ton of research. 46% of people who track their health say it has changed their overall approach to maintaining wellness. Has all this tracking produced a tangible effect on their actual health and wellness? We do not know.

On the other hand, many are complaining that their Fitbits are moving them in the wrong direction – instead of getting trimmer, they report gaining pounds. Apparently, there is more to sustained weight loss and wellness than simply counting calories and tracking steps – it involves a strong motivation and some solid goal setting. Apps are just tools to track your progress towards these goals.

Besides, no matter how well designed and precisely tuned, a mass-market fitness app or tracker is simply not designed to challenge an individual to the level of exertion they might be capable of by simply exercising their will. As the great Muhammad Ali said, “I don’t count my sit-ups. I only start counting when it starts hurting.”

Placebo Effect from Fitness Apps?

The working of the human mind is always the grey area. Can just having a fitness app on your phone, or a fitness tracker on your wrist, give you a psychological edge in the wellness race? There is research pointing to a consistent psychological effect of exercise performed with perceived additional wellness benefits. In one famous study, hotel room workers were told they were getting a great workout at their jobs, and as a consequence, in four weeks, all of them exhibited decreases in blood pressure and body fat. The control group who was not told about the wellness benefits showed no such progress.

Other evidence suggests a positive effect compliments may have on patients’ recovery rates. Wearing a fitness tracker or downloading a fitness app may be a way to self-motivate, but it may also have the wellness effect of a consistent self-compliment.   I wouldn’t buy a fitness tracking device, or use a fitness app, unless I was at least half-prepared to face the reality of my fitness behavior. High self-esteem can indeed be healthy – in many ways.

How Healthcare Providers can Capitalize on the Psychology of Fitness Apps

Facing soaring costs of patient care, providers are looking for ways to engage and motivate patients to take control of their health. But what apps or gadgets will people readily adopt, and how can physicians identify the most efficient mobile tools for their patients? Patients trust their healthcare provider the most when it comes to information about wellness and fitness – more so than any online sources.

Empowered with the right mobile app development tools, healthcare professionals can make a real change in the lives of their patients. With MobileSmith, any non-programmer can quickly prototype, test, and build an interactive mobile app that will motivate, track, compliment, and educate – without spending tens of thousands on custom developers, or hundreds of dollars on expensive gadgets. But if your patients still want to splurge on a sleek-looking fitness watch, who are you to prevent them?