Background: In May 2013, the iTunes and Google Play stores contained 23,490 and 17,756 smartphone applications (apps) categorized as Health and Fitness, respectively. The quality of these apps, in terms of applying established health behavior change techniques, remains unclear.
Methods: The study sample was identified through systematic searches in iTunes and Google Play. Search terms were based on Boolean logic and included AND combinations for physical activity, healthy lifestyle, exercise, fitness, coach, assistant, motivation, and support. Sixty-four apps were downloaded, reviewed, and rated based on the taxonomy of behavior change techniques used in the interventions. Mean and ranges were calculated for the number of observed behavior change techniques. Using nonparametric tests, we compared the number of techniques observed in free and paid apps and in iTunes and Google Play.
Results: On average, the reviewed apps included 5 behavior change techniques (range 2-8). Techniques such as self-monitoring, providing feedback on performance, and goal-setting were used most frequently, whereas some techniques such as motivational interviewing, stress management, relapse prevention, self-talk, role models, and prompted barrier identification were not. No differences in the number of behavior change techniques between free and paid apps, or between the app stores were found.
Conclusions: The present study demonstrated that apps promoting physical activity applied an average of 5 out of 23 possible behavior change techniques. This number was not different for paid and free apps or between app stores. The most frequently used behavior change techniques in apps were similar to those most frequently used in other types of physical activity promotion interventions.