World Australians' inactivity levels could have major health effects, but some experts say fitness apps could help

09:04  04 january  2022
09:04  04 january  2022 Source:   abc.net.au

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Strava, Fitbit, Chloe Ting and more: as we near two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, online programs, personalities and smartphone fitness trackers may have become a familiar feature for people looking to maintain — or improve — their health and fitness. 

But while pre-pandemic ways of keeping active have returned, experts say we shouldn't delete the applications (apps) or unsubscribe just yet.

Because research is indicating they have helped get us moving, and that activity, even minimal, can do a great deal of good.

Our active-app habits during lockdown

As lockdowns forced the closure of gyms and training facilities, people turned to online platforms to find like-minded communities and adapt their training programs.

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For others, notes accredited exercise physiologist Tim Douge, it was a chance to take advantage of the circumstances to focus on — and perhaps reprioritise — their health.

"There were the other people who suddenly found they had a lot more flexibility in their time, or maybe had a lot more time," he says.

"So for them, that was the opportunity to start fitness or start being more active where they didn't have that chance before." 

A study from Flinders University found popular apps among its respondents included activity trackers like Strava, Fitbit and Garmin. 

Fitness YouTubers, such as Chloe Ting, also saw their audiences skyrocket and adapted their content accordingly, with video workouts designed for short intervals of time, no equipment — even minimal noise 'apartment' workouts.

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Melody Ding, an epidemiologist and behavioural change scientist, was part of a research team at the University of Sydney which examined whether fitness apps and trackers actually got us moving more.

The meta analysis, which pooled evidence from a number of different studies across 2020, focused on tools that tracked activity in real time and gave real time feedback: two elements Dr Ding says are important for motivating and reinforcing people to do more.

The project found that when compared with a control group, those with the apps reported an average 1,800 more steps a day. 

"I think 1,800 [steps] is a very good start, and we really want people to accumulate more steps, even if it's just 100, a few hundred here and there," she says.

The analysis showed that improved results often came from going beyond just having the smartphone apps themselves. 

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"We want to believe that apps and trackers are the silver bullets for everything — we get everyone an app, and everyone gets fit and active — but it doesn't work like that."

"In the studies we examined, most of the studies actually paired an app and activity trackers with some other sort of support, whether that's informational, social support goal setting, or motivational."

The dangers of doing nothing

Mr Douge says even small amounts of activity, such as walking to the bus stop, or taking the stairs or even gardening, is essential for overall health.

"Having some structure to physical activity in your day is critical for maintaining your heart health, your circulation, and your respiratory functions," he told The Drum. 

"We also know it helps stimulate your brain and your nervous system."

In addition, he says regular activity is important for regulating hormones affecting sleep, appetite and mood — even digestion. 

Dr Ding warns large-scale inactivity can have tremendous consequences.

"Physical inactivity is a global pandemic in itself."

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"It's a very widespread problem, and it's a widespread problem that's not getting any better," she told The Drum. 

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) says more than half of Australians are either not active at all, or do not meet the recommended guidelines. 

The health impacts of inactivity are broad and concerning — including an increased risk of chronic diseases such as stroke, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. 

"It's really the cause of many causes of morbidity and mortality," warns Dr Ding. 

She notes even the small boost to activity levels from smartphone apps — indicated in studies like the one she contributed to — could mean widespread benefits.

"We have very consistent, and very strong evidence that we get the most improvement in physical activity — especially at the population level — when we move people from doing nothing to doing something."

Data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare showed as little as 15 extra minutes of brisk walking each day for five days a week could see a 13 per cent reduction in the 'disease burden' — the health that is lost due to physical inactivity.

The more this extra time was increased, the lesser the burden. 

How do we get the most out of fitness apps?

Mr Douge says it is important to be realistic about fitness apps and their outcomes. 

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"Social media is based around creating that false idea of a relationship, that you get to know someone and you might put trust in them because of how they present themselves on social media," he says.

"And a lot of those people, they're just blessed with good genetics, really."

For some people, moving straight into programs like high intensity interval training (HIIT) may be too big of a jump and could discourage further activity. 

He recommends thinking about how the smartphone apps align with your personal goals, whether it's small boosts to activity levels, or striving to achieve a new fitness feat. 

"The best ones have allowed people to do what they enjoy already, and maybe add to that."

That may also include incorporating the use of apps or trackers with available in-person training and support. 

From a broader perspective, Dr Ding says there is a conversation to be had about how best to support people keeping active.

"When we think about physical activity it is really an outcome of various drivers, from environment, policies, transportation, schools. Trackers and devices, they're just pieces of the puzzle," she says.

"What we can do better, and what we should talk about more, is how we make it easier for people to sustain these habits."

This might include more available green spaces or walking tracks, access to public transport — even discussions around continuing flexible work arrangement. 

And if all of this feels a little overwhelming, focusing on your mindset and setting small goals is a great way to start, Mr Douge says.

"You can very easily change your mindset to say, 'what is the best thing I can do to look after myself, today?' — and that might be your mental health, physical health," he says.

"And if that's just simply going for a walk, you can be proud that you've done the right thing by your body and by your health."

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