Exercise apps

Also called fitness apps

There are thousands of exercise apps that cover a wide range of physical activities from walking and running to exercise classes and apps for personal trainers. Increasingly many fitness apps can sync with a wearable device such as fitness bands and smart watches. On this page you will find information on:

Types of exercise apps

Physical activity apps can be categorised into five groups according to their main focus:1

  • workout apps that demonstrate various exercises
  • tracking of movement apps that map running, walking or cycling routes
  • running programmes that have pre-specified goals reached by gradual small increases in run-to-walk ratio
  • pedometer-based apps that count steps
  • interval timers that time work and rest periods.

Can smartphone apps increase physical activity?

To answer that question, we need to look at the evidence provided by reliable studies, such as randomised controlled trials.   An analysis of 9 such trials that used a smartphone app as the key intervention to increase physical activity found that these apps had a modest positive influence on physical activity.2 Physical activity was measured as either moderate-to-vigorous physical activity minutes or steps. The analysis found that, in particular, smartphone apps have a significant positive effect on physical activity when used over a short-term period (ie, less than 3 months) and where apps target physical activity alone, rather than physical activity in combination with other health behaviors. The authors conclude that future research is needed to understand more about the effect of the apps over time, and to investigate strategies to sustain the effects of using the apps over time.

Deciding on suitable apps - help me choose

As there are so many apps for physical activity and exercise, finding a fitness app to meet your needs can be challenging. It depends largely on your preferred type of exercise and other qualities you want your app to have. The inclusion of behaviour change techniques in the app features may be helpful. For example, does the app have the following features:3

  • goal setting: prompt you to set goals and plan your exercises 
  • monitoring: allow you to monitor your progress
  • feedback: provide feedback on your performance
  • rewards: offer rewards when you achieve your goal
  • social support: have an online community or other means of social support. 

Alternatively, when deciding on a fitness app, you may find the use of the fitness app scoring instrument useful to compare and  contrast features.4

  • This tool is based on the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommended exercise prescription, which consists of three main components: aerobic exercise, strength and resistance, and flexibility.
  •  It provides a structured way of assessing fitness apps and has notes or qualifiers to help you along.

Helpful websites and resources

We have not been able to review all the fitness and exercise apps available in the app stores. We have instead identified independent organisations that have reviewed these apps and other resources that may be helpful.  

Resource Target audience Description

Healthy living apps

(VicHealth, Australia)

Adults This website has reviewed more than 250 physical activity and sport apps. To find an app that suits you, you can search for apps by device, age group and pricing.

Exercise apps

(My Health Apps, UK)
 

Adults This website has reviews of physical activity and sport apps. 

Health & Fitness app reviews

(Common Sense Media, US)

Children This website has reviews of health and fitness apps for children.  

National Institute On Aging  (US)

Older adults This website has:

SuperHealth project (US)

People with disabilities This organisation is currently evaluating a home-based exercise training system for people with a mobility disability. 

References

  1. Bondaronek P, Alkhaldi G, Slee A, et al. Quality of Publicly Available Physical Activity Apps: Review and Content Analysis. JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2018 Mar 21;6(3):e53.
  2. Romeo A, Edney S, Plotnikoff R, et al. Can Smartphone Apps Increase Physical Activity? Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. J Med Internet Res. 2019 Mar 19;21(3)
  3. Wang Q, Egelandsdal B, Amdam GV, et al. Diet and Physical Activity Apps: Perceived Effectiveness by App Users. JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2016 Apr 7;4(2):e33.
  4. Kebede M, Steenbock B, Helmer SM, et al. Identifying Evidence-Informed Physical Activity Apps: Content Analysis. JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2018 Dec 18;6(12).
  5. Guo Y, Bian J, Leavitt T, et al. Assessing the Quality of Mobile Exercise Apps Based on the American College of Sports Medicine Guidelines: A Reliable and Valid Scoring Instrument. J Med Internet Res. 2017 Mar 7;19(3):e67. 

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Last reviewed: 23 May 2019