The Best Mobile Coaching App

August 24, 2015 | John Paul Catanzaro

Today everyone owns a mobile device and more people are using them as coaching tools for their physical activity. Which coaching app is the best? That’s hard to say, but a recent study examined the quality of thirty mobile coaching apps. Here’s what the researchers found…

Low Quality of Free Coaching Apps With Respect to the American College of Sports Medicine Guidelines: A Review of Current Mobile Apps.
Modave F, Bian J, Leavitt T, Bromwell J, Harris III C, Vincent H. JMIR mHealth uHealth 2015;3(3):e77

Background: Low physical activity level is a significant contributor to chronic disease, weight dysregulation, and mortality. Nearly 70% of the American population is overweight, and 35% is obese. Obesity costs an estimated US$ 147 billion annually in health care, and as many as 95 million years of life. Although poor nutritional habits remain the major culprit, lack of physical activity significantly contributes to the obesity epidemic and related lifestyle diseases.

Objective: Over the past 10 years, mobile devices have become ubiquitous, and there is an ever-increasing number of mobile apps that are being developed to facilitate physical activity, particularly for active people. However, no systematic assessment has been performed about their quality with respect to following the parameters of sound fitness principles and scientific evidence, or suitability for a variety of fitness levels. The aim of this paper is to fill this gap and assess the quality of mobile coaching apps on iOS mobile devices.

Methods: A set of 30 popular mobile apps pertaining to physical activity programming was identified and reviewed on an iPhone device. These apps met the inclusion criteria and provided specific prescriptive fitness and exercise programming content. The content of these apps was compared against the current guidelines and fitness principles established by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). A weighted scoring method based on the recommendations of the ACSM was developed to generate subscores for quality of programming content for aerobic (0-6 scale), resistance (0-6 scale), and flexibility (0-2 scale) components using the frequency, intensity, time, and type (FITT) principle. An overall score (0-14 scale) was generated from the subscores to represent the overall quality of a fitness coaching app.

Results: Only 3 apps scored above 50% on the aerobic component (mean 0.7514, SD 1.2150, maximum 4.1636), 4 scored above 50% on the resistance/strength component (mean 1.4525, SD 1.2101, maximum 4.1094), and no app scored above 50% on the flexibility component (mean 0.1118, SD 0.2679, maximum 0.9816). Finally, only 1 app had an overall score (64.3%) above 50% (mean 2.3158, SD 1.911, maximum 9.0072).

Conclusions: There are over 100,000 health-related apps. When looking at popular free apps related to physical activity, we observe that very few of them are evidence based, and respect the guidelines for aerobic activity, strength/resistance training, and flexibility, set forth by the ACSM. Users should exercise caution when adopting a new app for physical activity purposes. This study also clearly identifies a gap in evidence-based apps that can be used safely and effectively to start a physical routine program, develop fitness, and lose weight. App developers have an exciting opportunity to improve mobile coaching app quality by addressing these gaps.

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Take-Home Message: Just like the quality of coaching will vary, so will the quality of coaching apps. Find one that works well for you and stick with it. The key is consistency.