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Diet and Physical Activity Apps: Perceived Effectiveness by App Users

1. What was the motivation behind your study?

Many people spend a lot of time on their smartphones nowadays; amongst other purposes, to find information about health. There are many applications (apps) on phones, tablets and other portable devices that aim to motivate users to eat healthier and exercise more, for example by providing nutrition and training plans, allowing tracking of what the user eats and how much they exercise, and allowing sharing on social media. But do these diet and physical activity apps really help? What do people who use such apps think about the usability and effectiveness? That is what we investigated in this study.

2. Describe your study.

First, we conducted three group discussions; two with people who used diet and/or physical activity apps, and one with people who did not use such apps. We asked them about their motivations for using such apps, how they experienced using such apps, whether such apps were useful, and general opinions about these types of health apps. Second, based on these discussions, we made a questionnaire that was answered by 500 Norwegian young adults. This questionnaire focused more in detail on how use of diet and physical activity apps could result in a healthier diet and more physical activity.

3. What were the results of the study?

More than half of the users perceived that apps were indeed helpful. Apps were deemed effective in helping to maintain some healthy habits, particularly when used over a longer period (more than 1 month), and when diet and physical activity apps were used in combination.

4. What is the main point that readers should take away from this study?

There is a great potential for diet and physical activity apps to help people eat healthier and exercise more: users found such apps useful, and app use could be linked to healthy behaviors. However, while the users generally considered them to be fun to use, they were also considered to be time-consuming, which does not motivate people to keep using such apps over a long period. In addition, the current apps that are available are not tailor-made to the individual, which may also reduce the motivation of people to try the apps or keep using them.

5. What was the most surprising finding from your study?

App users indicated that diet and physical activity apps were affecting not only their behavior, but also their health consciousness, their knowledge about nutrition and exercising, and their social interactions.

6. What are the next steps? How do you envision this work ultimately translating into clinical practice or affecting R&D?

There are many diet and physical activity apps available for various devices and operating systems; however, many of them are not tailor-made, and many of them are most suited for use in the countries where they were developed. The health authorities in different countries could collaborate with app developers and retailers to design diet and physical activity apps that include relevant food products and physical activities for their country and possibly even some targeted, tailor-made health communication.

This Q&A was contributed by Qing Wang, MSc from the Department of Chemistry, Biotechnology and Food Science, Norwegian University of Life Sciences.