Fitness Apps: The Good and the Bad

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When I searched “fitness” in the App Store on my iPad, it came up with more results than I could scroll through. They ranged from apps that track your cycling information, calories, or weight loss to weekly challenges, and diet programs. I even found apps that use the idea of being chased by zombies as motivation to get up for your morning run.

With so many options, it can be difficult to know whether you should use an app, and if so, which one. There are some fantastic apps that help support you to move joyfully, eat intuitively, and foster positive body image.

There are also apps that are inherently bad; they contain poor, unsubstantiated information about exercise prescription, dietary guidelines, or body weight recommendations. And of course, there are apps that fall somewhere in between these categories.

The Good:

1. Fitness apps can be fun and give you new ideas.
I’m not sure I’d use the “being chased by zombies” app but I know many people who would absolutely love it. Fitness should be something that is largely enjoyable and apps can provide a new dimension through games, interactions with friends, or simply the suggestion of new and exciting exercises. Other apps can provide recipes to make dinnertime something to really look forward to, or offer alterations if you have allergies to consider.

2. They can target other areas of “fitness.”
Fitness can be considered a holistic term and includes more than just how far you can run or how much weight you can lift. Yoga, Pilates, and stretching, as well as relaxation and meditation, are great complements to your fitness program. There are a number of apps to help with these practices.

3. They can provide feedback.
You can use the information provided by some fitness apps to help identify areas in your diet or exercise program that may need changing. It might be that you’re no longer seeing improvements in your running distance – a sign you’re possibly over-training and need to reduce your load. Or you may see patterns in your eating behaviours, such as the tendency to binge in the evening when you’ve been busy at work and missed lunch. This feedback may help you to prioritize your health and take a break at lunchtime or have a snack on the way home.

The Bad:

1. Fitness apps aren’t individualized.
Fitness apps, whether they focus on exercise, food, or both, are very rarely individualized. Even if the app collects information on your gender, age, height, weight, etc., computers can’t account for all the extra features and nuances that exist within the body (and mind!). This may leave you prone to injuries and poor nutritional intake, or it may reduce the effectiveness of the program. Apps may be cheaper than seeing a professional, however, it’s certainly worth seeing a qualified dietitian or exercise physiologist to provide some individual advice (at least in the beginning).

2. They provide external guidance, not internal cues.
An app that makes recommendations about when, how much, and what type of exercise you do or foods you eat does not teach you how to listen to your own body. Everybody is unique, and an app can’t possibly know what your unique self-needs. Consistently using external cues may result in disordered eating and exercise behaviours, including under-eating, bingeing, over-exercising, and associated emotions such as guilt. In the long-term, your internal cues may be silenced and you may find it difficult to eat or exercise without guidance from the app.

3. They are often “numbers” focused.
Many people find motivation in keeping track of how far they can run, how many calories they’ve eaten, or how much weight they’ve lost. Some people are able to acknowledge these are just numbers and use them as a guide whilst still listening to and honouring their own body. For others, these numbers can become consuming and obsessive. It’s important to be aware of what these numbers represent. They don’t necessarily correlate with genuine changes in your health or fitness.

When you begin thinking about using a fitness app, it can be helpful to consider who developed the app, who the app is designed for, and what sort of “promises” it’s making.

For example, an app designed by a company whose name you don’t recognize that promises “flat abs in just 7 minutes a day” is unlikely to be as scientifically sound as an app run by a government or medical organization.

Further, different people will respond differently to each app, whilst one app might be great for your friend, it could be unhelpful for you.

Some questions you might ask yourself are:

  • Does this app motivate me in a positive way or does it leave me feeling guilty?
  • Is this app teaching me or do I feel I am solely relying on the app?
  • Is this app genuinely improving my life and my health or am I feeling it might be leading to injuries/disordered eating/poor mental health?

Ultimately, I encourage you to use apps to support and complement your own internal cues, rather than to dictate what you should or shouldn’t be doing. Speaking to a professional, as well as using an app, can help set you up for an experience that will foster good physical, mental, and emotional health.


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