There are two populations of users that access fitness app technologies: the exercise-engaged - those with a history of being active and appreciate being physically active - and the exercise-naïve - those with relatively no exercise experience to lean on in starting their journey. For the exercise-naive, starting to exercise is comparatively a novel, deer-in-the-headlights experience. The deep-seated apprehension in their psychology is “I will try this, BUT I really shouldn’t be here.”

The fitness app technology  fails/undermines the exercise naïve individual’s attempt to pursue an active lifestyle.

The issue lies with the business model that drives revenues in fitness technologies. Fitness app technologies commonly generate revenue through the add-on offerings they pitch. Who are these offerings aimed at? Definitely not that someone getting off the couch and struggling to start to exercise, struggling to just get their runners on their feet population! They are built/designed for the quick and easy sale, targeting the exercise-engaged user who having previous exercise experience is more willing to purchase the offerings.

In pursuing to be more active, the exercise-naïve will initially see 80% attrition in the first few months. Exercise app’s offerings?  They undermine the exercise-naïve success during this period.  The focus of most fitness technology offerings is “comparison;” that is, exercise “competition” or “challenge” as the motivator. Who appreciates this approach better than the exercise-engaged. However, for the exercise-naïve, these offerings can look somewhat intimidating. They look at these “competition” features, thinking “that is not me,” or “I don’t want to be compared.” Understandably the doubt that follows is, “if that is what exercise is all about, really, should I be here?”

So, Who are the exercise-naïve?

They are a dominant part of those 85% of Canadians who do not meet the minimum activity levels to maintain one’s health. They are best described in the following manner:

1.   Comparatively, they have a lower self-efficacy with regards to attempting to become active;

2.   They likely have poor physical literacy in their understanding of exercise;

3.   They are more likely to be exercise facility phobic. Lacking previous experience with exercise communities, they are uneasy in exercise facility settings and with gym culture.


The Achilles heel to present-day exercise technology

The problem with hundreds of popular exercise apps is they are not built with the primary focus to support habit formation. The industry focus is on profit. Habit support does not sell like competition/comparison. The latter directly speaks to the exercise-engaged who are more willing to purchase such offerings. It clearly does not to the exercise-naïve subpopulation, rather it communicates, “you don’t belong,” “this is not you.”

The research clearly identifies this problem:

●     The most popular of the 2017 fitness technologies only incorporate a handful - goal setting, positive messages, feedback, simple rewards, and social supports. (Sullivan 2017) - of the 26 behavioral change tools (Michie 2011) identified to support the exercise-naïve.

●     Comparing the research over the last analysis over the last decade, there has not been much of a change in this direction. (Cowan 2012; Conroy 2016; Sullivan 2017; Mercer 2016; Michie 2011).

●     Identifying individual barriers and subsequent barrier problem resolution strategies, essentials in the transformative process are “rarely included in fitness trackers and smart phones” (Mercer 2016). These are essentials “in changing not only physical activity behaviors but also beliefs in one’s own ability…” (i.e. self-efficacy) and yet remain completely overlooked. (Sullivan 2017).

What are the key features that fitness technologies should deliver to optimize your exercise-naïve client’s success? The 10,000 foot view:

1.   The transformative process: A successful exercise app must, at its core, be focused on supporting transformation. The key is leveraging evidence-based BCTs.

2.   Education informs, it does not transform: Education moves minds ever so gently, one small step at a time. It is an essential piece for the exercise-naïve.

3.   Networking the client to the Healthcare Professional (HCP), given the value to the client is 200 – 300% improved outcomes. Impactful!

Over 80% of patients will quit in the initial months while making efforts to transform their life. Why not offer guidance on what to avoid?


1.Michie S, et al. “The behaviour change technique taxonomy (v1) of 93 Hierarchically Clustered Techniques: Building an Interventional Consensus for the Reporting of Behavior Change Interventions.” Annals of Behavioral Medicine 46.1 (2013): 81–95.

2.Michie S, Ashford S, et al. “A refined taxonomy of behaviour change techniques to help people change their physical activity and healthy eating behaviours: the CALO-RE taxonomy.” Psychology and Health 26.11 (2011): 1479–1498.

3.Michie S, Abraham C, et al. “Effective Techniques in Healthy Eating and Physical Activity. Interventions: A meta-regression.” Health Psychology 28.6 (2009): 690–701.

4.Conroy D, Yang C. “Behaviour change techniques in top ranked mobile apps for physical activity.” American Journal of Preventative Medicine 46.6 (2014): 649–652.

5.Cowan LT, et al. “Apps of steel: are exercise apps providing consumers with realistic expectations?: a content analysis of exercise apps for presence of behavior change theory”. Health Educ Behav. 2013 Apr;40(2):133-9. doi: 10.1177/1090198112452126. Epub 2012 Sep 17.

6.Mercer K., et al, Behavior change techniques present in wearable activity trackers: a critical analysis. JMIR Mhealth Uhealth (2016)

7.Sullivan A, et al. “Behavior Change with Fitness Technology in Sedentary Adults: A Review of the Evidence for Increasing Physical Activity”. Front Public Health. 2016; 4: 289. Published online 2017 Jan 11. doi:  10.3389/fpubh.2016.00289 PMCID: PMC5225122