Smartphone apps for physical activity: A systematic review

  • Kirwan M
  • Duncan M
  • Vandelanotte C
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Introduction: Smartphones are Australia's most popular mobile device, and it is estimated that by 2015, 90% of Australians will own a smartphone. Over 19,000 health-related smartphone apps are available and many are focused on physical activity and exercise. Previous research has identified a number of intervention components associated with improved intervention efficacy including self-monitoring, goal setting, personalised feedback and social support. Therefore this study sought to systematically review the most popular physical activity apps on the iOS and android platforms in terms of provision of these components. Methods: Four hundred of the most popular free apps (health and fitness category) from the Apple iTunes (n = 200) and Google Play store (n = 200) were downloaded. Apps were included for review if they referred to physical activity and allowed self-monitoring of physical activity. Apps that satisfied these inclusion criteria were coded in terms of educational content, and evidence based features (self-monitoring, goal setting, personalised feedback and social support). Results: Of the 400 apps examined, 81 apps were reviewed (40 from iTunes, 41 from Google Play), 17.3% (n = 14) provided educational content, only 2.5% (n = 2) of apps provided educational content aligned with national guidelines for physical activity. Only, 69.1% of apps (n = 56) allowed users to manually self-monitor physical activity; 72.8% allowed automated self-monitoring using inbuilt features (i.e. GPS, pedometer, accelerometer) or an external device (e.g. Fitbit)). Over 54% (n = 44) also provided the option to track at least one other behaviour (diet, sitting time, sleep, mood, alcohol intake, weight, and stress). Goal setting options were included in 56 apps (69.1%), and almost all apps (97.5%, n = 79) provided personalised feedback on progress towards their goal. In relation to social support, most apps included at least one feature (93.8%, n = 76). Discussion: To the authors knowledge this is the first study to systematically review the most popular physical activity apps downloaded by consumers. Findings highlight the low adherence of apps to provide evidence based educational content. These omissions represent a serious weakness of existing apps and in light of the popularity of apps it can be considered a missed opportunity for physical activity promotion. In relation to other features, most apps fared well - with a trend showing that developers are providing more sophisticated means to track activity, utilising the devices' GPS and accelerometry capabilities. Due to the potential of these apps to help consumers improve their health it is recommended that apps be developed or revised around evidence based behaviour change principles, and that all apps undergo rigorous evaluations.

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  • M. Kirwan

  • M. Duncan

  • C. Vandelanotte

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