Evidence Summary

What is an Evidence Summary?

Key messages from scientific research that's ready to be acted on

Got It, Hide this
  • Rating:

Gamified smartphone apps may increase physical activity levels

Yang Y, Hu H, Koenigstorfer J. Effects of gamified smartphone applications on physical activity: A systematic review and meta-analysis Am J Prev Med. 2021;62:602-613.

Review question

What are the effects of smartphone apps with game-like features on physical activity when used as a standalone strategy?


Many individuals do not engage in recommended levels of physical activity, despite physical activity being shown to prevent disease and improve one’s health. Smartphone apps show promise in helping people get and stay physically active, but they need to be improved. Gamifying smartphone apps by incorporating features typically seen in games—such as point collection and challenges—is one strategy that could bolster their effectiveness. Currently, research on standalone gamified apps and their impact on physical activity is lacking.

How the review was done

This is a systematic review and meta-analysis of 19 studies, the majority of which were randomized controlled trials. The studies were published between 2014 and 2021 and included a total of 1,908 participants. Key features of the studies:

  • Participants included children, adults, and older adults.
  • Participants used standalone gamified apps for a period of 1 to 24 weeks.
  • Researchers measured changes in physical activity levels and specific outcomes such as moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, walking and step counts.
  • Outcomes were compared to control groups, which involved participants being placed on waiting lists to eventually participate in a gamified app intervention or engaging in/using some other standard strategy, such as lifestyle counselling, paper diaries, and calorie or activity tracking devices/apps.  

What the researchers found

Overall, the review found that gamified apps may help increase physical activity levels, especially walking and step counts. Although leaderboards (that show users’ standings), rewards, and the integration of social networking were prominent features of the apps used in the included studies, more high-quality research is needed to understand which game-like features support and maintain behaviour change related to physical activity. These preliminary results were based on very low to moderate certainty evidence, meaning the results are likely to change as new studies emerge. 


Smartphone apps which integrate game-like features may have the potential to increase physical activity levels, namely walking and step counts, when used as a standalone strategy.  


Control group
A group that receives either no treatment or a standard treatment.
Advanced statistical methods contrasting and combining results from different studies.
Randomized controlled trials
Studies where people are assigned to one of the treatments purely by chance.
Systematic review
A comprehensive evaluation of the available research evidence on a particular topic.

Related Evidence Summaries

Related Web Resources

  • Alzheimer's Disease: Do Ginkgo products help?

    Informed Health Online
    Gingko supplements (240 mg per day) may help reduce symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and enable you to perform daily tasks better. Be aware that gingko could interact with other medications, so talk to your doctor before taking any supplements.
  • Some herbal drugs may ease back pain in short term

    Institute for Work & Health
    Some alternative herbal medicines may help to relieve back pain. Devil's Claw, Willow Bark and cayenne may help reduce pain in the short term. However, there is no evidence that these substances are safe or useful in the long-term.
  • Relieving menopause symptoms on your own

    Informed Health Online
    There is no conclusive research about how diet choices, exercise, relaxation techniques, herbal supplements or alternative therapies affect menopause symptoms. Use caution if you try herbal supplements and alternative therapies to treat menopause symptoms; some of these can have serious side effects.
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 (

Register for free access to all Professional content