By Ellen O’Donoghue
Research conducted by NUI Galway has examined the positive and negative impact the use of gamified fitness apps can have on a user’s mental well-being.
The research, carried out by the J.E Cairnes School of Business and Economics, specifically focused on identifying how the social features of fitness apps predict whether the user has a harmonious or obsessive passion for physical exercise and what the resulting implications are for the person’s wellbeing.
Fitness apps are catered to a rewards-oriented platform for users, based on the tracking and analysis of their digital trace data e.g. the number of steps walked per day or calories burned.
The popularity of gamified fitness apps has surged in recent years, with consumers turning to self-tracking and gamification to motivate and sustain physical activity.
In the United States alone, 92 million people use fitness apps contributing to a market income of over $600 million in 2019.
The research, which was led by Dr Eoin Whelan, 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 them for reciprocation, which the study defined as giving support and encouragement to other exercisers, are more likely to have a harmonious passion for their exercise, and ultimately lower life stress.
However, people who use the app for social recognition, to receive praise and public endorsements for their exercise, are more likely to develop an obsessive passion for exercise, suffering higher life stress in the long run as a result.
Lead author of the study, Dr Eoin Whelan, Senior Lecturer in Business Information Systems at NUI Galway, says such apps can be a “Double-edged sword”, stating: “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”.
Dr Whelan explained the positive and negative impacts that the use of fitness apps has on their users, as he outlined the science behind both the positive and negative connotations associated with their use. “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”.