An increasingly sedentary lifestyle in which people can't put down their mobile devices has led app developers to believe there could be a pot of gold in motivating people to exercise by means of gamified fitness, though researchers says the gaming aspect could have limited long-term success.
Also read: Apps put fitness fans through short, sharp workouts
"It's just been assumed that gamified apps will work, but there has been no research to show that they're effective for people long-term," says lead author Cameron Lister of the Brigham Young University Health Sciences Department. "Does earning a badge on your screen actually change your health behavior?"
Lister and BYU health sciences professor Josh West examined 2,000 of the 31,000 fitness apps on the market and found that a large majority of the most popular apps aim to motivate by means of gamification.
Researchers say the most common form of motivation in the apps is peer pressure, which was the main component in 45% of apps found to include gamification, followed by digital rewards (24%), competitions (18%) and leaderboards (14%).
Also read: Top fitness apps to try in 2014
The researchers then analyzed the apps for their gaming components and how they addressed behavior change, and found that their approach often didn't lend itself to long-term motivation and behavioral change. For example, they say, rather than operating on a rewards-based system that could start to feel more like work than play, the apps could focus on skill development.
The team speculates that app developers are unwilling to confront this in fear of setting their products -- and, more importantly, the methods behind them -- up for scruitiny in a market driven by turnover.
They downloaded and tested 132 gamified fitness apps including Pact, Fitbit, DietBet and Zombies, Run! All of the aforementioned apps are social networking enabled to pit friends against each other in the race to achieve fitness goals, and two pay successful users with virtual money at the expense of others.
Also read: The rise of the planet of the apps
Once the novelty wears off, the motivation goes away and the elements key to fitness and behavior change have been ignored, say researchers in explaining the buzzed-about quandary that the majority of fitness app users are quick to abandon their technologies.
"I would caution developers and users to not have unrealistic expectations about the potential impact of gamified apps," says West. "Everybody wants to know if they result in more sustainable behavior change but we just don't know yet."