Study Finds the Use of Fitness Apps associated with both Positive and Negative Wellness Outcomes

Dr Eoin Whelan, Senior Lecturer in Business Information Systems, J.E. Cairnes School of Business and Economics at NUI Galway
Jan 14 2020 Posted: 10:36 GMT

Light shed on ‘dark side’ of fitness app engagement

Warning re implications of apps in employee wellness programmes

A study carried out by the J.E. Cairnes School of Business and Economics at NUI Galway has examined how fitness apps can affect the wellbeing of the user.  The research specifically focused on identifying how the social features of fitness apps predict the type of passion (harmonious and obsessive) one has for physical exercise, and what the resulting positive and negative implications are for the person’s wellbeing.

To motivate people to exercise, modern physical fitness apps, such as Strava, Nike+, MyFitnessPal, RunKeeper, and Fitocracy, are gamified to provide a variety of rewards to users based on the tracking and analysis of their digital trace data e.g. the number of steps walked per day, calories burned, or average speed of a cycle or run. The market for fitness apps has exploded in recent years as people turn to self-tracking and gamification to motivate and sustain physical activity.  For instance, in the United States alone, 92 million people use fitness apps contributing to a market volume of US$602.0m in 2019 (Statista 2019).

The research found that fitness apps can lead to both positive and negative wellbeing outcomes, depending on the person’s social motivation for using the app.  People who use fitness apps for reciprocation (i.e. giving support and encouragement to other exercisers), are more likely to have a harmonious passion for their exercise, and ultimately lower life stress.  In contrast, people who use the app for social recognition (i.e. to receive praise and public endorsements for their exercise activities) are more likely to develop an obsessive passion for physical exercise, and suffer higher life stress in the long run.

Lead author of the study, Dr Eoin Whelan, Senior Lecturer in Business Information Systems, J.E. Cairnes School of Business and Economics at NUI Galway, said: “The majority of exercisers are now using digital technology to track and share their workout data in order to support their fitness goals.  But these fitness apps can be a double-edged sword.  Our study suggests fitness sharing apps can certainly help seed and sustain exercise routines, but there is a danger that some users may develop obsessive tendencies, which need to be avoided.  Fitness app social features which promote self-recognition, such as posting only positive workout data or photos, can be linked to maladaptive perceptions of exercise and burnout in the long run.  In contrast, fitness app social features which promote reciprocation, such as giving support and commenting on colleagues’ activities, are likely to lead to adaptive outcomes.” 

The study also flags to employers the risks and responsibilities of giving employees free fitness apps and incorporating fitness apps as part of employee wellness programmes.  “Our results shed light on the dark side of fitness app engagement in that they may indirectly lead to greater burnout.  If the organisation supports fitness app use among employees, they should also be responsible for ensuring the employee maintains control over their exercise patterns.  One possible solution could be for the organisation to monitor the exercise log files of employees and assess these for signals of exercise obsession,” says Dr Whelan.

A copy of the full study, published in the journal Information Technology & People, is available on request.  The research was based on 272 people involved in cardio-intense physical activity.  It was authored by Dr Whelan with Trevor Clohessy, Department of Business Information Systems, Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology.


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