Running marathonUsing mobile device to improve physical fitness and dietary behaviors is a goal shared by numerous app developers and their health professional teams. From garages in Silicon Valley to major research institutions throughout the world, great minds are focused on wondering how a device that people have nearly 24 hours a day can change how much people move and what they put into their bodies.

One need only search for physical fitness on the app store, or witness Wall Street’s initial response to FitBit’s public offering, to see that there is great interest in solving this problem that could improve the health status of individuals in numerous countries.

In a recent Journal of Medical Internet Research study, researchers from the University of Auckland in New Zealand performed a small randomized controlled trial to determine the impact of two commercially available apps – Zombies, Run! and Get Running – on cardiorespiratory fitness and physical activities levels in young people ages 14 – 17 who were labeled as “insufficiently active” (less than 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity each day). Young people were randomized into three arms, the two apps and a control group. Average age of the participants was 15.7 and the average BMI was a normal at 22.9. The trial was named Apps for IMproving FITness (AIMFIT). The researchers also sought to identify features of app design that may contribute to improving fitness and physical activity levels.

Both apps were focused on training the user to run a 5K. The primary outcome of the trial was the time to complete a 1 mile run or or walk test at 8 weeks. There were also numerous secondary outcomes. There was no significant effect on any of the outcomes, although there was nonsignificant improvement in the treatment group.

So, what did the researchers learn beyond the fact that the apps did not change physical activity? Perhaps the key finding of this study is that for 14 – 17 year olds, the majority of participants in the treatment arms (66%) had no prior experience using their smartphone for physical activity purposes. The apps selected were not targeted to young people and like most consumer products, lack of targeting and understanding of a demographic is likely to lead to no impact on that group.

Future research in this area should start by figuring out whether commercially available fitness apps are actually used by the target group. The researchers in this study pointed to high use of smartphones by youth and their use of apps generally, but did not demonstrate that youth actually used apps for physical fitness. In fact these youth may not use phones for this purpose at all. Or perhaps there are subsets of youth – overweight youth for example – who may be interested in these apps.

More market research on who is most likely to use the commercially available apps can guide research in this area. Research on young people should also consider the gap in smartphone use that likely occurs during school for youth. This large gap in access to a mobile device (common in schools that prevent the use of such devices during class) is likely to be relevant to the success of any behavior change app based on a mobile device.

Getting kids and adolescents to be more active is important; establishing healthy lifestyles at that stage in life could make an incredible impact in adulthood. But as this study highlights, it will take more than just recommending an app – even if those apps happen to be fun and popular.