Carolina García

Senior Strategist

Research and Perspective

Three Key Ways Apps Have Transformed Health and Fitness

Apps have made fitness affordable and accessible with tools that track progress and communities who support and inspire.

Being healthy and fit is challenging. It requires key behavioral changes, increased spending on food, gyms and trainers, as well as a significant commitment of time and effort prior to witnessing a noticeable change. But in the last five years, mobile apps have transformed fitness in a meaningful way for both novice and experts.

When it comes to developing healthier lifestyles, the barriers to entry have been significantly lowered. This app category has undergone tremendous growth in recent years. Health and fitness apps grew faster than any other category in the App Store in 2014 and there is no sign of it slowing down. According to a recent study conducted by Accenture, “the number of consumers who use mobile health apps increased from 16 percent in 2014 to 33 percent today," and during that same time period consumers who report having used wearables increased “from 9 percent to 21 percent." As adoption rises and people get accustomed to monitoring their health through apps, engagement (measured by time spent) follows a similar upwards trajectory. In 2014, time spent on health and fitness apps increased by 51% relative to 2013, thereby outpacing growth in time spent for all other App categories except for Music.

Apps have addressed key challenges in the fitness space

Up until smartphones became ubiquitous, there were three ways for adults to exercise depending on their personal level of motivation: 1) on their own, 2) at a gym, or 3) with a personal trainer. Before looking into how technology redefined the fitness space, let’s look into how this spectrum of options alienated and limited various groups of people based on their expertise, budget and geographical location.

On the far left of the spectrum there is the solo exerciser category which attracts people who are highly motivated and knowledgeable about fitness. People who work out solo are disciplined and familiar with an exercise routine so they don’t need much of an incentive to workout -- it’s already part of their lifestyle. Although this type of exercising is appealing to seasoned athletes, it’s difficult for a novice to launch a routine solo because they lack the knowledge needed to develop a fitness plan and will find it difficult to maintain a routine out of the gate.

In the middle of the spectrum there are gym-goers, people who pay for a membership in order to have access to machines and fitness classes. These people enjoy having the option to alternate between different types of workouts. They’re motivated in group settings but also want the option to exercise solo. Although crowds motivate these people, they sometimes struggle to find time to get to the gym and need a buddy or incentive to make exercising a priority.

Finally, on the far right right of the spectrum there are people who workout with personal trainers. These individuals prefer to hire a trainer because they lack the knowledge to workout alone, are intimidated by the gym environment, or believe that trainers are the best way to achieve results. Although having a personal trainer increases the likelihood of committing to a workout routine, it’s expensive and most people cannot afford to hire and sustain a fitness routine governed by a trained professional.

Apps have transformed exercise in three key ways

Changing your behavior -- from eliminating bad habits to forming good ones -- is difficult. Developing healthy habits are especially challenging because it demands money and time without any immediate gratification. Fortunately, fitness technology companies understand these obstacles and have set out to overcome these barriers by:

  1. Making fitness affordable and accessible to all who seek group fitness or personal training, regardless of athleticism or budget
  2. Quantifying progress as it occurs, through small but meaningful increments (or wins), which is particularly encouraging to solo exercisers
  3. Fostering communities of similar people who can motivate and inspire one another no matter how or where you exercise

Make fitness affordable and accessible to anyone with a smartphone

Technology has transformed the fitness space by giving everyone access to all types of workout activities in any type of environment. People aren’t constrained to particular locations nor do they have to spend significant sums of money to get personalized training. From running and biking trackers, to yoga, bootcamp and spinning classes for the class-junkie, to pocket trainers for those seeking personalized workouts for specific results, there’s a fitness app for everyone, everywhere.

People who like working out on their own can now measure their progress accurately and join virtual gym classes without the crowds. Gym-aficionados have more options of classes and exercises to choose from through apps like Cyclecast, Fitstar and Cody. And for the first time, personal training is available and affordable for everyone through apps like Nike Training Club (free) or Sweat With Kayla. Money and time no longer prevent people from working out.

Create tools for measuring performance and tracking progress

Having access to all types of exercise methods doesn’t ensure commitment. Losing weight or building muscle is challenging; unfortunately, being unable to witness change after weeks or months of hard work drives many people to give up before obtaining the desired results.

Although visible change happens slowly, apps provide us with a glimpse into how our bodies change through exercising in real time. Wearables and mobile apps monitor activity on such a granular level that people can witness progress with each and every activity. Therefore, instead of tracking success through weight loss/gain -- which oscillates slowly over time and is a poor indicator of physical health -- people can gain a more accurate picture of performance with metrics such as: calories burned, speed, active minutes and other indicators that demonstrate progress in a much more meaningful and accurate way. Today, several fitness apps and wearables such as Fitbit incorporate a diet tracker in order to provide users with a more holistic view of their health.

Build supportive communities of like-minded users who share similar goals

Numerous studies have shown that group exercising increases the likelihood of developing long-lasting exercise habits. According to the clinical director of Westchester Group Works, “Exercise partners provide a powerful combination of support, accountability, motivation and, in some cases, healthy competition” .

Many fitness apps that did not have a social feed, such as Nike Training Club, later introduced one so that users can create groups, invite friends and join fitness challenges. Social communities are usually opt-in only so if certain users do not care for the social aspect they’re not obligated to contribute. If users choose to be social, these fitness communities allow users to make friends while keeping each other motivated by sharing tips, routines and experiences. Social workout communities also allow novices to seek advice from more seasoned athletes on the platform without having to spend time face-to-face with a personal trainer.

As a result, fitness apps that built communities of individuals with similar fitness interests attracted millions of users in just a few years. Brands have validated the power of these communities with a series of notable acquisitions: MyFitness Pal by Under Armour for $475 million; Runtastic by Adidas for $240 million; and FitnessKeeper by Asics for $85 million.

Combine all three key components for success

Fitness apps have unquestionably lowered or completely eroded the biggest obstacles to developing active, healthy lifestyles. By providing access to all types of exercising methods, quantifying progress in real time, and fostering communities of people who share similar lifestyle preferences, apps have become the most powerful fitness companions for everyone who decides to develop a more active lifestyle as well as those who want to monitor their health.