By Erin Glabets and Margaret McKenna
When Dan Gillis left his PhD program, he weighed 185 pounds—12 pounds shy of obesity for his 5’7” frame—felt lethargic, and was plagued with an elevated heart rate and blood pressure.
Five years later, he clocks in at 145 pounds. He has run 20 half marathons, and has his sights set on a few marathons and a 50K ultramarathon next year. All this from the man who describes himself as having never been truly healthy while growing up.
What accounts for the change? To put it in his words “I signed up to RunKeeper in December of 2008, and I haven’t regretted our relationship once. To put it in plain terms, RunKeeper helped me change my life.”
Dan is not alone. Our blog and inboxes overflow with stories like these. Apps like MyFitnessPal—a tool for keeping track of nutrition—report the same experiences. The stories make us feel good, and remind of us why we do the work we do.
But we know anecdote is no substitute for evidence. So while we are collecting feel good stories, we are also taking a hard look at the evidence around fitness and technology, and we see a lot to suggest we’re on the right path.
So why are magazines like Fortune reporting that health apps “don’t save people”?
One reason might be that there is an evidence vacuum when it comes to health apps. Researchers at the London School of Health and Tropical Hygiene conducted a review of 75 studies on technology and health and found only four studies showed a low risk of bias. Only four studies whose results could even be trusted.
A writer looking to stir up controversy could easily equate the dearth of studies with a lack of evidence.
But the truth is, if you break a mobile fitness app down to its components—functionality for setting and tracking goals, built-in reminders to work out, and guidance on how to work out—you find that there is plenty of trusted evidence to suggest that a mobile app is a great conduit for success in improving and maintaining fitness.
Studies of digital interventions, such as text message or e-mail reminders, have been shown to increase adherence to antiretroviral drugs for HIV patients and improve smoking cessation for others. They’ve also had an impact in improving follow-up adherence to pediatric cataract treatment and have successfully encouraged others to hit the gym more.
Again and again, the evidence says: reminders work and we should include them in all health interventions.
The kind of evidence that seems to be in short supply is around the causal relationship between using a fitness tracker and effects on weight loss, stress, and cardiovascular fitness. If you use a fitness tracker, are you more likely than someone who doesn’t use a tracker to be healthy by any of these measures? Teasing out the answer to that would be invaluable to RunKeeper and any other company or institution looking to leverage technology to help people lead healthier lives.
We built RunKeeper because we believe motivation around fitness is hard, and all of us need support in making exercise a consistent part of our lives. When we tweak our design or add features, we do so mindful of existing research on motivation and behavior. Being the “Personal Trainer in Your Pocket” is a hard thing to do, and we want all the help we can get.
So what do we see when we read about the lack of good studies on mobile health apps? We see a great opportunity for researchers to look closely and carefully at our sector and conduct the studies that will inform how fitness apps like ours can become even more effective for even more people.