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Getting your game on? Smartphone apps to increase physical activity levels

The Bottom Line

  • Smartphones play an important role in the lives of most Canadians.
  • Smartphone apps that contain game-like features may help people increase their physical activity levels, especially walking and step count.   
  • Consider an app’s features, reviews, target audience, privacy implications, and cost when trying to select the best app for you.  

With each passing day, rapidly evolving technologies become ever more integrated into our lives. From professional to personal matters, they help us stay connected with others, allow us to access an abundance of information, and even keep us entertained (1). The smartphone is one technological advancement that is in heavy use. In 2020, there were almost 32 million smartphone users in Canada, and 84% of them depended on these phones for tackling personal matters (1;2). In addition, more than half of Canadians report that the first thing they do when they wake up and the last thing they do before they go to sleep is…check their smartphone. Even more interesting is how often Canadians check their phones, with two in five people reporting that they do so at least every half an hour (1).


Given the high usage of smartphones by Canadians, there is the potential to leverage this use to help us catch up in areas we are falling behind, such as meeting recommended physical activity levels (3;4). For adults between the ages of 18 and 65+, the Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines suggest a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each week and strength/resistance training a minimum of two times a week, amongst other add-ons (4). Meeting these standards is important because not getting an adequate amount of physical activity increases the risk of developing chronic diseases and dying (3).


In response to this issue, one systematic review set out to look at the effects of smartphones, specifically “gamified” smartphone apps as a solo strategy, on physical activity (5). Gamification occurs when something that is not a game has features typically seen in games applied to it—such as the completion of challenges or the collection of points (5-8).  


So, should you add smartphone apps that have been gamified to your exercise plan?


What the research tells us

The review, which is the first of its kind to look at this topic, found some promising preliminary results. More specifically, it appears that gamified apps may help increase physical activity levels. Walking and step count are two physical activity outcomes that stand out as having the potential to see improvements. Although the authors of the review note that there is still a lack of clarity around which game-like features support and maintain behaviour change, the following features may be effective at increasing physical activity: leaderboards that allow app users to see each others’ standings, the integration of social networking, and rewards. In addition to improving the quality of studies, future research needs to understand how specific app features impact behaviour (3).


If you are looking for tools to help you up your exercise game, you may want to consider leveraging your smartphone and the time you spend on it by trying a gamified app. App stores house a wide variety of free and paid options to choose from. To select the most suitable app for you, be sure to read up on multiple options—including how they work, what features they offer, their target age group or demographic, user ratings and reviews, app privacy, and any associated costs. Be aware that some free apps may include certain paid features as well. Do not forget to speak with your health care team before adding this tool to your exercise plan; together you can discuss how to incorporate this strategy into your plan and the safety precautions that you as an individual may need to take while exercising.


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References

  1. Statistics Canada. Canadian Internet Use Survey, 2020. [Internet] 2021. [cited August 2022]. Available from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/210622/dq210622b-eng.htm
  2. O'Dea S. Smartphone users in Canada 2018-2024. [Internet] 2022. [cited August 2022]. Available from https://www.statista.com/statistics/467190/forecast-of-smartphone-users-in-canada/
  3. World Health Organization. Physical activity. [Internet] 2020. [cited August 2022]. Available from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/physical-activity
  4. Statistics Canada. Canadian Health Measures Survey: Activity monitor data, 2018-2019. [Internet] 2021. [cited August 2022]. Available from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/210901/dq210901c-eng.htm
  5. Yang Y, Hu H, Koenigstorfer J. Effects of gamified smartphone applications on physical activity: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Am J Prev Med. 2022; 62(4):602-613. doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2021.10.005.
  6. Deterding S, Dixon D, Khaled R, et al. From game design elements to gamefulness: Defining “gamification”. Proceedings of the 15th International Academic MindTrek Conference. 2011 September 28−30; Tampere, Finland:9-15.
  7. Xi N, Hamari J. Does gamification satisfy needs? A study on the relationship between gamification features and intrinsic need satisfaction. Int J Inf Manag. 2019; 46:210-221.
  8. Werbach K, Hunter D. For the win: How game thinking can revolutionize your business. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Wharton Digital Press, 2012.

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (info@mcmasteroptimalaging.org).

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.

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