According to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, most gyms only expect to see about 18 per cent of their paid subscribers to consistently visit them, as four out of five American gym passes go unused. This stands in stark contrast to the relative massive trend in the market for a healthier lifestyle. People obviously want to be healthy, now more than ever, but lack the follow-through on their fitness ambitions. This is where fitness apps come in to fill the gap. Giants such as Nike Training Club and MyFitnessPal are promising a one-size-fits-all solution that guides users through the learning curve.

As a varsity volleyball player, Amitoj Purewal vouches for the vast facilitation the app on his Apple Watch has had on his routine. “it really encapsulates my groove. I honestly feel a compulsive need to close my rings. Usually, I end up taking a quick jog when I plug in some headphones, crank up some sweet Bob Dylan or Arctic Monkeys, and off I go,” Purewal says. As one of Dylan’s diehard fans, Purewal admits, “Dylan is really a profound poet and it’s easy to get lost in his tunes so that my jog is over before I even know it. Music apps might not be in the fitness category but it’s definitely a fitness necessity.” His girlfriend, Makise Mankoo however has the opposite perspective, stating “I’ve never had to use apps when I started working out as the rest of humanity has before, and I don’t see why you’d need it at all.”

Although workouts may be easy enough, yoga and mental health are a different matter. As a former yoga instructor, Devin Gopaul got totally hooked on it after reading his favourite book yet, Autobiography of a Yogi. He states, “Calm has been a great app that really taught and introduced me to meditation. If you wanna have the resilient mind of a yogi, apps are really the only way to go. It’s not as intuitive as exercise and so technology really has a big role to bridge the gap there.”

According to a leading study published in Journal of Medical Research by Litman et al., they found that among 726 subjects, the fitness app users were significantly more likely to exercise more often than non-app users. In addition, their study noted apps really did help overcome mental or physical barriers, such as procrastination, to working out. According to Litman, “people who have a lot of barriers appear to obtain higher levels of self-efficacy when they use exercise apps.”

Unfortunately, this correlation is likely only based on the user’s own motivation to exercise. Carnegie Mellon University published a study where they examined 2000 subjects to determine that only people who maintain a healthy lifestyle found apps to be a helpful companion, whereas people who don’t found themselves not really using technology.

The vast consensus in the research community, as summarized by Conroy, a professor of kinesiology from Penn State, is that for fitness apps to work, they must be implementing a behaviour change strategy and other than a few key ones, the rest of the App Store fails to demonstrate any such techniques. Behaviour science clearly depicts that apps are simply not equipped with any of the effective strategies required to motivate people.

In this sense, there are two types of fitness apps: educational and motivational. In the latter domain, apps really do not show any theory or evidence-based content and are not tested empirically against behaviour-modification outcomes. Apps don’t really cause an obsession to exercise but can be good educational tools to learn how to exercise.

Some particularly good apps pointed out by researchers are MyFitnessPal and Sweat by Kayla Itsines. Apparently, personalization is important. A study in UBC Okanagan’s School of Health and Exercise Sciences by Professor Mary Jung showed that groups who had personalized features on their apps were able to exercise more. These two apps embrace this convenience and personalization, along with a few behavioural change techniques. MyFitnessPal for example, is commended for its self-monitoring ability and tracking a person’s daily activity. Recalling all the missed opportunities are an important part of behavioural change and this app helps establish that.

Overall, the research consensus is that the individual dictates the efficacy of the app. If one truly has the motivation to be healthier and responds well to their app’s specific features, then fitness apps can indeed live up to all of their promises.