Mobile health apps lack behavior-change techniques

May 6, 2014

Behavior-change techniques are not well represented in the marketing materials for top-rated physical-activity apps, according to a team of Penn State researchers.

They also found that two types of apps are available on the market—those that focus on educating users on how to perform different exercises and those that focus on supporting users' motivation for physical activity.

"The app marketplace is largely unregulated and users make decisions based on developers' descriptions of apps," said David Conroy, professor of kinesiology. "Our results suggest that developers have not incorporated many behavior-change techniques to date, and there may be opportunities to integrate behavioral science to make apps that are more effective for helping people who seek to change their behavior and become more active."

The researchers identified the top-ranked health and fitness apps as of Aug. 28, 2013, on the two major online marketplaces—Apple iTunes and Google Play. Specifically, they examined apps from the top 50 paid and top 50 free lists in the "health and fitness" category for each operating system, resulting in four lists totaling 200 apps. Next, they located descriptions of each app online, reviewed the descriptions and had them coded by two trained coders using the Coventry, Aberdeen and London-Refined taxonomy—a list of common behavior-change techniques used in interventions and developed to give people a structure for comparing what is in one intervention versus another.

The researchers found that most of the descriptions of the apps they examined incorporated fewer than four behavior change techniques. The most common techniques involved providing instruction on how to perform exercises, feedback on performance, goal-setting assistance and planning social support or change. They report their results today (May 6) in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Further analysis revealed the existence of two types of apps, educational and motivational, based on their configurations of behavior-change techniques.

"Our results suggest that there are far fewer behavior-change techniques described in apps than in interventions, which are delivered in-person to help people increase their physical activity," Conroy said. "However, this does not necessarily mean that apps are less effective, because it is possible that a number of techniques included in the in-person intervention packages are inert. We suggest that users should consider their needs carefully when selecting a physical-activity app."

The team is completing a detailed inspection of apps to see if developers incorporated techniques that were not described in their marketing materials. The researchers also are collaborating to evaluate ways of making mobile interventions more effective by integrating advances from engineering and psychology to optimize these interventions.

Explore further: Google removes Android malware used to secretly mine bitcoin

Related Stories

Google removes Android malware used to secretly mine bitcoin

April 27, 2014
If you own an Android device, your phone might be mining bitcoin without you even knowing it. Five applications were recently removed from the Google Play store after they were discovered to be covertly using Android devices ...

Evaluating mobile weight loss apps on use of evidence-based behavioral strategies

October 8, 2013
In a new study published by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, UMass Medical School behavioral psychologist and weight loss expert Sherry Pagoto, PhD, and colleagues find that mobile apps to help people lose weight ...

New JAMA article suggests review and certification process for mHealth apps

March 25, 2014
While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has released guidelines for the regulation of mobile health (mHealth) apps that act as medical devices or as accessories to medical devices, the vast majority of mHealth apps remain ...

Recommended for you

Blowing smoke? E-cigarettes might help smokers quit

July 26, 2017
People who used e-cigarettes were more likely to kick the habit than those who didn't, a new study found.

Brain disease seen in most football players in large report

July 25, 2017
Research on 202 former football players found evidence of a brain disease linked to repeated head blows in nearly all of them, from athletes in the National Football League, college and even high school.

Safety of medical devices not often evaluated by sex, age, or race

July 25, 2017
Researchers at Yale and the University of California-San Francisco have found that few medical devices are analyzed to consider the influence of their users' sex, age, or race on safety and effectiveness.

Why you should consider more than looks when choosing a fitness tracker

July 25, 2017
A UNSW study of five popular physical activity monitors, including Fitbit and Jawbone models, has found their accuracy differs with the speed of activity, and where they are worn.

Dog walking could be key to ensuring activity in later life

July 24, 2017
A new study has shown that regularly walking a dog boosts levels of physical activity in older people, especially during the winter.

Study finds 275,000 calls to poison control centers for dietary supplement exposures from 2000 through 2012

July 24, 2017
U.S. Poison Control Centers receive a call every 24 minutes, on average, regarding dietary supplement exposures, according to a new study from the Center for Injury Research and Policy and the Central Ohio Poison Center, ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.