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Workout Apps May Not be Helpful for Active Lifestyles, Study Finds

Marathon, black silhouettes of runners on the sunset

Many Americans believe that downloading a fitness app will be the kick-start they need to get them off the couch and into an active lifestyle. Fewer than 5% of adults are getting the recommended 30 minutes of activity every day, and some of the remaining 95% are trying to change their lifestyle. However, a new study by University of Florida researchers says that many people still fail to meet the physical activity standards set forth by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).

Scoring apps based on aerobics, strength and resistance, and flexibility, researchers looked at 30 popular apps available on both iPhone and Android. Only one out of 30 apps scored above 50%, and that was Sworkit Lite. The app provides stretching, yoga, pilates and strength workout options, ranging in length from five minutes to an hour.

“We found that most apps are not as safe as they could be and are not providing users with the most effective workouts,” said lead author François Modave, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Health Outcomes and Policy at the University of Florida.

The study, which was originally published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, found that many of the apps did not provide safety guidelines for exercise. In fact, any sort of guidelines and/or warnings were weak or nonexistent on most of the apps they looked at. The danger of this is that it leaves beginners — who are the most likely to download these apps — vulnerable when it comes to injuries.

Paywalls in the apps were also a source of worry for the researchers. Many of the apps would actually have matched the ACSM’s requirements, but for the user to gain access they had to unlock portions of the app by paying. Without that access, the apps are still unsafe.

“If you charge, you at least have to make sure that on the free portion of the app the content is still evidence-based and built on true, expert information,” Modave said.

The researchers say that while this doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t use a fitness app at all, it does point to a need for research by each individual outside of the app. So, if you use a fitness app, make sure it isn’t the only place you look for information. Instead, use multiple apps, or seek out information from other trusted sources.

“My piece of advice would be try to find an app that contains a bit of everything to get started,” says Heather Vincent, a co-author of the study and member of the ACSM Consumer Information Committee. “But if you’re having trouble finding the perfect, user-friendly option, choose a couple that might be really close and that are very strong on one or two components. You should try doing those components from one app and maybe choose a different one to complete the program.”

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