Apps are small, specialized programs (applications) designed to be downloaded onto a mobile device, such as a smartphone or tablet PC. Fitness apps are designed specifically to assist with exercise, other types of physical training, nutrition and diet, or related fitness topics. Because fitness apps, a part of a larger group of apps called health apps, are available to be used at home and while away, they are part of a healthcare movement called mobile health (mHealth).
The purpose of a fitness app is to provide the user with instructions and examples of one or more types of exercise, physical activity, nutritional programs, or some other fitness topic. Many fitness apps are available to download from the internet. Some are used to count calories, others record statistics on workouts or collect data on walks, runs, and bike rides. Some fitness apps connect the user to a personal trainer or nutritionist to help with areas of concerns when using a specific fitness routine or just generally with workouts. Further, some fitness apps provide a coordinated series of songs, each having the same beat when doing such workouts as running and fitness classes.
For instance, Calorie Counter & Diet Tracker by MyFitnessPal.com is a free app that provides data on the number of calories one consumes each day, along with the number expended daily. In January 2014, the app had 2.1 million users. The Johnson & Johnson Official 7-Minute Workout app helps users get some exercise in a short amount of time. It provides for different levels of difficulty based on one's current level of fitness. Other than a chair, no equipment is necessary.
An app that helps one to keep motivated over a long period of time is the 30-Day Fitness Challenges, by Vigour Apps. It provides more than 25 different exercises that help to keep exercise interesting over a month period. Six levels of exercises are provided, from beginner to advanced, and the movements include squats, crunches, burpees, and ab definition. As the month progresses, each day's routine gets more difficult.
According to an April 2014 article by Aditi Pai on MobiHealthNews.com , nearly one-third of smartphone owners in the United States (about 46 million) used health and fitness apps in January 2014. During the month, the average user accessed their health and fitness apps an average of 16 times. Each time, the visit was for nearly one hour. The report from Nielsen, a global measurement company, stated that fitness apps in January 2014 were accessed 18% more often than in January 2013. Fitness apps that connect to wearable online devices include Fitbit (with 3.3 million users in January 2014), Samsung's Health (3 million users), and NikeþRunning (0.8 million users).
From an 2014 online article in BusinessInsider.com, between December 2013 and June 2014, the use of health and fitness apps increased 62%, while the overall use of apps grew by only 33%. A survey conducted by Flurry Analytics, around that same time, showed that 62% of people who used health and fitness apps (what the company calls “Fitness Fanatics”) were female and 38% were male. With regards to general apps, 48% were female and 52% male.
When it came to age groups, 34% of health and fitness app users in the 23–34-year-old-group used health and fitness apps, whereas the 35–54-year-old group were at 47%. Other age groups participated little with health and fitness apps.
According to a report from the IMS Institute for Health Care Informatics, a healthcare industry data provider, as of September 2015, more than 165,000 health apps were available in the online marketplace. Of that number, 36% (59,400) of them deal with fitness.
Fitness apps can be used for a variety of different uses, including obtaining information about health and medical issues (e.g., WebMD), providing a list of exercises (e.g., Fitness Buddy), keeping track of nutritional and dietary information (e.g., Calorie Counter and Diet Tracker), keeping informed about topics related to fitness (e.g., Health and Fitness magazines), monitoring one's menstrual periods (e.g., Period Tracker Deluxe), developing running skills (e.g., Couch to 5K), learning about diet and nutrition fundamentals (e.g., Fooducate), and obtaining information about sexual performance and activities (e.g., iKamasutra Lite). There probably is no fitness topic for which there is not at least one app, and there are usually many more.
Fitness apps are easily downloaded onto any mobile communications device. Many such apps are free, and those that must be purchased are generally inexpensive, usually less than $10 each.
In June 2008, Apple introduced the new iPhone 3G, with the capability of downloading third-party applications. A month later, the company opened the Apple App Store to provide access to many of those apps. Since that time, other companies have also introduced a very wide variety of apps, including fitness apps, for different communications platforms.
Fitness apps fall into a number of general categories including exercise programs, nutrition and diet, menstrual periods and pregnancy, general fitness information, running training, sexual health, sleep aids, yoga exercises, first aid advice, child care, heart health, muscle training, stress control, meditation, smoking cessation, blood types, blood sugar levels, and specialty exercise and training such as kegel workouts, ab (abdominal muscles) workouts, and push ups.
No special preparation is needed to download and use a fitness app.
Little information is available, as of December 2016, regarding risks to consumers on the use of health and fitness apps. One might assume, however, that at least some risk is associated with using exercise programs on one's own without the availability of a trainer or partner to ensure that injury does not occur during an exercise. Also, it is not always clear how dependable or reliable the information provided by an app (for example, nutrition information) may be.
Questions have been raised about safety and security of wearable technologies, such as wearable online devices. These devices allow for the tracking of user activities. In 2014, Symantec, a software and programming corporation primarily dealing with online security, issued a report called How Safe is Your Quantified Self? the report stated, “all of the wearable activity-tracking devices examined, including those from leading brands, are vulnerable to location tracking.”
In other words, someone who hacks an individual's wearable device will likely have access to the location of that person throughout the day and will also possibly know that person's age, sex, and other physical characteristics, along with the location of their home and/or work. Many companies make wearable fitness trackers, including Apple, Fitbit, Jawbone, and Samsung. As stated by Forbes magazine based on the Symantec report, only 48% of the fitness apps used by these devices were password protected.
As of 2017, little information is available about the effectiveness of fitness apps. On rare occasions, an agency of the federal government has required a company to remove or modify claims made for its app on the grounds that such claims were not based on scientific evidence. Such events have been very rare, however, so the app market is still one in which consumer caution is advised.
One of the few studies on the effectiveness of fitness apps was made by researchers at the University of Florida. The group analyzed 30 of the most popular fitness apps, as ranked by the American College of Sports Medicine based on its guidelines for physical activity. The study concentrated on the effectiveness of several criteria within fitness apps. These include cool downs, warm-ups, safety, and stretching. The scientists also looked at various types of exercise such as aerobic, flexibility, and strength/resistance. The study concluded that more than 50% of the tested apps provided an effective aerobic workout. In addition, about 90% of them met the guideline requirements for strength/resistance. Unfortunately, the study found that about 67% of the apps did not meet the requirements for flexibility.
According to the FitnessHealth101.com article Study Casts Doubt on Effectiveness of Fitness Apps, the research showed that “these apps simply do not provide the type of well-rounded workout known to be most effective.” The article went on to state, “They may be especially bad for beginners as well—23 of them don't provide any sort of training plan, explain how to schedule workouts throughout the week, or even discuss how to choose a workout.”
No doubt fitness apps will improve over time. They are better than no exercise, but many seem to need improvement before they provide an overall effective workout for their users. When using fitness apps, it is always wise to supplement them with warm-up and cool-down periods before and after exercising, respectively, and to incorporate proper techniques within workouts if not provided within the apps.
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American College of Sports Medicine, 401 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis, IN, 46202-3233, (317) 634-9200, Fax: (317) 634-7817, http://www.acsm.org .
American Council on Exercise, 4851 Paramount Dr., San Diego, CA, 92123, (888) 825-3636, http://www.fitness.gov .
President's Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, 1101 Wootton Pkwy., Ste. 560, Rockville, MD, 20852, (240) 276-9567, Fax: (240) 276-9860, email@example.com, http://www.fitness.gov .
Shape America (Society of Health and Physical Educators), 1900 Association Dr., Reston, VA, 20191-1598, (703) 476-9527, (800) 213-7193, http://www.shapeamerica.org/ .
David E. Newton, AB, MA, EdD
Revised by William A. Atkins, AB, MA, EdD