Can sport apps keep us healthy? “Rarely now, in the future maybe”

During the corona crisis, many apps are coming on the market to keep or make us healthy and fit. But can those apps do that? “If sports science, psychology and technology can work together in a better way, then personalization will be better and it might become successful,” says Kristof De Mey, sports innovation manager and lecturer of Sports Technology and Innovation at Ghent University.

What’s not yet right, at this moment?

  • According to scientists, we are still in the “discovery phase” when it comes to digital sports technology
  • Most sports and activity trackers are not accurate enough to generate relevant data
  • Few sports apps base themselves on medically sound exercise guidelines
  • Apps are often too focused on promoting performance rather than health
  • Too few apps can properly tell people when they are doing something wrong

How it can have an impact in the future:

Kristof De Mey: “The science is unanimous. A purely biomedical approach does not seem to work. The key lies in the psychology of behavioral change. Actually, sports science, psychology and technology should work better together to come up with very personalized products.”

“Behavioral scientists argue that specific motivations such as being able to set your own goals, ask for and receive feedback, see progress, experience social support and enjoyment, etc. should be better included in such products.”

Being able to ask and provide feedback should be integrated into such an app, according to behavioral scientists.

Kristof De Mey – Ghent University Victoris

Full article below

Can sport apps keep us healthy in times of Corona?

The Corona crisis brings a lot of misery. We have to do everything in our power to compete with this virus. The quarantine measures are necessary and may continue for some time. Meanwhile, in this period when we are less mobile, all kinds of applications, platforms, etc. are being promoted to try and keep us fit and healthy. Companies and startups are implementing new products or campaigning for what was previously relatively unknown to the general public. But to what extent can these tools effectively keep (or even make) us healthy?

In these difficult times, when we are all supposed to stay inside, exercising and moving is important. This is obvious. All kinds of digital tools can support us in this. And there are quite a few. The German organization SportsTechX systematically keeps information on startups who are implementing technologies in the sports sector. The database now includes about 5,500 startups worldwide. In a recent European report, it was found that of all the investments in these organizations, 45% of that budget goes to systems that focus on stimulating physical activity or optimizing sports performance. In concrete terms, we are talking about all kinds of wearables and trackers, software platforms with exercise material, fitness and training applications and virtual environments that enhance the experience of sports. In our country, several companies and organizations are active in this field, which is obviously very welcome.

But what do we know about the effectiveness of such systems when viewed across an entire population? First of all, the accuracy with which those products collect data about our behavior is not that good. Studies conclude that most sports and activity trackers are not sufficiently accurate to generate relevant data (level of activity, quality of sleep, exercises performed properly or not, etc.). This gets worse the more intensively we exercise. This is gradually improving, but for now it is one of the main reasons why people stop using such systems after a few weeks or months, according to our own research in collaboration with iMinds (now imec).

Many applications look very good and you know how they can be used, but their actual content is often not that good. American research shows, for example, that few if any commercially available sports applications incorporate the guidelines for medically sound training. Most are also too often focused on performance rather than health promotion. Let’s take a look at a sport like running (or jogging), where the number of injuries continues to rise, despite the wealth of knowledge around injury prevention. There we see that of the hundred or so available wearables, apps, virtual coaches, etc., not a single one has yet been able to solidify that you can use them to reduce the risk of an overuse injury. In short, some manage to generate relevant data and create a fun experience, but they rarely make a real difference. Scientists worldwide therefore conclude that we are still only in the exploratory phase when it comes to digital sports technology.

Perhaps, even more important in these times, is the role that technology can play for those who were not doing sports before the crisis, were already under-active or even sedentary. What do we know about that? The science is unanimous. A purely biomedical approach does not appear to work. The key lies in the psychology of behavioral change.

Specifically, that means that all the well-intentioned initiatives around online fitness, personal training, etc. stand a good chance of failing.

It is not because you can make it clear to people whether they are doing the exercises right or wrong, that they will do something about their exercise behavior. But for people who were already familiar with such exercises or are about to start, it can of course be very useful.

In that context, despite the quarantine and safe distance measures, the current period certainly provides opportunities to briefly register your basic activity (starting with your number of steps; a product like Fitbit does that relatively correctly) and be aware of the impact of the measures. Also on a larger scale, interesting insights can be gained about the extent to which we collectively move more, and in this case clearly less. Whether we should see this crisis as a huge opportunity to get more people into sports and exercise via such technology is very clear to some and a bridge too far for others.

To make digital products even more useful, behavioral scientists argue that specific motivational strategies such as being able to set one’s own goals, ask for and receive feedback, see progress, experience social support and enjoyment, build knowledge, etc. should be part of such products, especially among the non-sporting target group. It is therefore curious to note (and this is a worldwide fact) that such features are often not or only partially integrated into the products that eventually reach the market. Nevertheless, more knowledge is available and many tools would work better if this were the case. The same applies to the role of similar technologies for medical and therapeutic applications. Both in governments and knowledge institutions as well as in companies, living healthy is (at least very often) a different domain than exercising healthy.

Therefore, the great challenge of this sector lies very much in better collaborations between experts from different disciplines of both the private and public sectors.

In this way, tools can be personalized and their effectiveness be increased for specific target groups. Something that ultimately affects everyone. A growing overlap between the sport, health, and medical (technology) sector is therefore desirable and even more to be expected in the coming years. Something that the many sports physicians, trainers and policy makers of, for example, the #blijvensporten-campaign (in Belgium) which tries to motivate our population to keep on exercising and moving, will probably greatly appreciate.

Reach out to Kristof De Mey if you want to learn more about these topics.

This article was published in April 2020 on the website of Sporza (in Dutch).

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