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5 powerful features that fitness apps use to get you moving

4 min read
Emily Esposito  •  Apr 15, 2019
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It’s fair to say that Candy Crush has taken over the world. With over two billion downloads, it’s officially the most popular Android game in the United States.

However, this engagement is limited to the digital world only: you’re not crushing tasty candies in real life (if you are, please let me know how I can join). Even the most successful apps can’t always influence real behavior and actions. Except for…

Fitness apps, which live at the intersection of entertainment and action. They need to channel Candy Crush-like features to draw you in and keep you engaged, but they also need to influence your behavior in real life to truly deliver on their promise.

When it comes to fitness apps, the digital and physical experience go hand-in-hand. If you don’t see real-world results, you’ll stop using the app, but if the app is too confusing to use, you won’t be able to pursue your fitness goals.

How do fitness apps accomplish this? We looked at a number of the biggest and best and found five experiences used to incite user action.

1. Leaderboards

A user-generated leaderboard from Map My Run.

Even if you’re not competitive, or at least claim not to be, you can’t deny the fact that you like to see your name at the top of the rankings.

Fitness apps like Map My Run and Nike Run Club leverage our innate competitive streak with leaderboards to show you how you rank against your friends, family, or even complete strangers.

Leaderboards are an especially powerful feature because they keep you active in real life and keep you checking in with the app. It’s a two-in-one experience augmenting both your digital and physical world.

And, if you need more proof, science has proven that this kind of competition may be the best motivation to exercise and stay active. A 2016 study followed 800 students at the University of Pennsylvania who went through an 11-week exercise program with running, spinning, yoga, pilates, and weight lifting. Each person was assigned to work out alone or in a team, and the dynamics of the teams were designed to be either socially supportive or competitive.

In the competitive team group, people could track the exercise progress of their peers but they had no interaction with them. The supportive team, however, could chat with one another, go to classes together, and motivate each other to work out.

The result? People who were in the competitive group went to 90% more exercise classes than those who weren’t.

This same principle applies to leaderboards. It turns out, simply tracking other people’s progress is enough to get you off the couch and into your running shoes.

2. Badges

A variety of different badges from Fitbit. Photo credit: Fitbit user Quan

Improving your fitness can be a long journey. You may want to set a new personal record, lose weight, or be able to lift a certain amount of weight. Unfortunately for all of us, those things don’t happen overnight.

To remind you of your victories while you journey forth, fitness apps have designed a way to celebrate the mini milestones along the way.

Digital badges reward you when you accomplish small wins that lead to the bigger goal, like exercising five days in a row or for walking 5,000 steps. These badges appear on your profile and are a way to show off your progress, and users love them. It’s a “thing” to get as many badges as you can.

That’s why Fitbit has designed more than 100 badges to recognize a variety of achievements, from floors climbed to weight lost.

“These virtual awards are designed to recognize and help you celebrate even the smallest victories along your health journey,” wrote Fitbit in a blog post.

3. Community

Adding friends in the RunKeeper app.

If leaderboards and badges don’t motivate you to get moving, you might need a little help from your friends. Fitness apps have been mirroring social media features for years, either integrating directly with platforms like Facebook or allowing you to create your own communities within the app.

Connecting with like-minded people can serve as the inspiration and encouragement you need to reach your own goals. Let’s say you post your latest running route on your fitness app and your friend “likes” it. That simple “like” serves as positive reinforcement that can increase your activity over time.

“In the early months of RunKeeper we made it possible for people to post their runs to Facebook and Twitter,” says Erin Glabets, content manager for the run-tracking app in a blog post from Sprout Social.

“Connecting with like-minded people can serve as the inspiration and encouragement you need to reach your own goals.”

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“We’ve found that people were getting encouragement from friends—sometimes some heckling—but people who were active on social channels also had better engagement with the app. People who have at least one friend in the RunKeeper app are three times more active than people who don’t have any friends.”

4. Real-life incentives

The Charity Miles app. Photo credit: Sue Kauffman

Sometimes digital badges or virtual communities just don’t cut it. You need a physical, tangible incentive to keep you going. And we’re not just talking about free t-shirts or tote bags.

The Charity Miles app takes a unique, altruistic approach to incentivizing fitness: it donates money to the organization of your choice when you use the app to log miles running, walking, or bicycling. So far, members have earned more than $2.5 million for charity.

Charity Miles’ approach is so clever because it distracts you from the task at hand and instead makes you focus on doing good.

For example, let’s say you’re training for a marathon and you use Charity Miles to motivate you to meet your running goals. It can be tempting to give up on a 12-mile practice run when your sore muscles are screaming out in pain, but instead, you’ll focus on raising money for your favorite charity. That new train of thought can carry you to the finish line.

Science has proven that distractions like this work. A 2012 study found that mental distractions can actually reduce pain (and, as anyone who’s trained for a race or competition can tell you, there’s a lot of pain in fitness).

5. Data visualizations

An example of a dashboard from Google Fit. Image source: We Tech-Geeks

Fitness apps unlock a trove of data, like how many calories you burn, how many steps you walk, your heart rate, and how your activity compares to historical performance. The tricky part is organizing all this data in a friendly, digestible way that makes you feel proud of your accomplishments, rather than overwhelming you or scaring you away.

“When trying to communicate a complex idea, like how active someone is, visuals are the way to go.”

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Apps like Google Fit have turned to dashboards with data visualizations for the answer. Users have been trained to navigate to a single place in the app (the dashboard) for an overview of all fitness-related data, where they can then drill down into the specific metrics they’re most interested in. These dashboards typically include graphs, charts, icons, and colors to distinguish data points from each other and organize all the information.

Why do most fitness apps turn to visuals, as opposed to raw numbers or a narrative, to communicate these metrics? The answer is simple: the human brain prefers imagery. We process visuals 60,000 times faster than text. Not to mention, 65% of people are visual learners. When trying to communicate a complex idea—like how active someone is—visuals are the way to go.

Data visualizations can also impact your chances of reaching your fitness goals. The American Psychological Association found that monitoring progress over time, by tracking data, for example, improves performance and increases the likelihood of attaining your goals. Your chances of success are even higher if you report your progress publicly (so don’t be afraid to share your stats with your friends on social media!).

Gamification isn’t always the answer

All these features live somewhere along the gamification spectrum: they’re all features designed to replicate gameplay and encourage participation. It’s easy to see why they are so effective in fitness apps, but they should not be default elements we include without evaluating our audience and app mechanics.

These features work in apps like Fitbit, RunKeeper, and Map My Run because the app developers have researched their users, tested concepts, and made sure the features resonated with their audience. They were addressing a need, solving a problem, or delighting users.

What does that mean for you? It’s important to learn from popular apps and see the similarities across the industry—to understand what works and what motivates. These are the features that have helped people achieve their goals. Let’s elevate them, celebrate them, and make them part of our lives.

Want to read more about great apps?

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