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In Stanford study, a social exercise app got people moving

Everybody wants to exercise more, but many of us get caught up in day-to-day demands and never get around to it.

A profusion of phone apps promise to get us moving, whether with cute badges, colorful feedback graphs, or mutual support from other would-be exercisers. But can phone apps actually change people’s behavior? And if so, which ones work best?

In thinking about such questions, a team of researchers at Stanford realized that most motivational apps poorly exploit what is known about behavioral sciences. So the team — led by Abby King, PhD, professor of medicine and of health research and policy — custom built three phone apps based on different spheres of behavioral science, each designed to motivate participants to exercise more.

The researchers then assigned 95 participants, all who were older than 44 years older, were sedentary and had never used a smart phone before, to use one of the three apps or a control dieting app for eight weeks. After measuring participants’ activity with an accelerometer, King and her colleagues found that a "social" app, which allowed users to compare themselves with others, promoted social support for behavior change, and displayed avatars that modeled good behavior, bested the "analytic" app, which emphasized self monitoring, and the "affect" app, which emphasized attachment, nurturance and play.

Compared to the people who used the analytic and affect apps, the social app users showed the greatest gains in weekly physical activity and the greatest reductions in sedentary behavior.

The research has limitations -- it had a small sample size and a short study period -- but it sets the stage for further exploration into whether different groups of people will benefit more from specific kinds of exercise apps.

The study appears today in PLoS ONE.

Previously: Can a food-tracking app help promote healthy eating habits?Help from a virtual friend goes a long way in boosting older adults' physical activityWhat type of smartphone apps are effective for promoting healthy habits among older adults? and Eat a carrot and exercise or your iBird dies
Photo by Alexandra E Rust

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