Staying mobile: how apps are driving a fitness renaissance

Thursday 13 August 2015 by Marina Munro

My iPhone alarm goes off at 6am every weekday morning except on Wednesdays (when I get rudely awakened by the dustman). Half asleep, I get up, head to the bathroom, brush my teeth then put on my gear. An hour later, I’m in the gym.

Why do I do this? Because I absolutely love it. There’s nothing better than coming into work feeling awake and knowing I’ve done my bit for the day. Every now and then I struggle to get motivated to haul myself out of bed. But I’ve got a secret weapon – an App Store full of them, in fact.

More and more of us are taking up regular exercise, driven by mobile apps. We’re all app-happy and have been for a few years. There are more than 3 million apps available globally for all types of phones – and fitness apps form the fastest growing segment of the market.

Apps like FitBit and Nike+ encourage us to log our activity and constantly beat our personal bests while programs like MyFitnessPal and SleepCycle mean we can count every calorie and minute of sleep throughout the week. Even social networks like Instagram are getting in on the action. The image-based social network is home to global fitness movements, with countless post-workout pictures and “inspirational” images that will us to get our bodies into shape. Wearable technology like Apple Watch will only make fitness apps even more popular.

So when I feel my drive is starting to drop, I look for apps that can put some fizz back into my workouts. Here are three that have really got me hooked lately.

1. Zombies, Run!

“Run in the real world. Become a hero in another.”

Screenshots of Zombies! Run.

I’ve never been that interested in running; I find it really boring without music and end up quitting pretty quickly if there’s nothing my mind can focus on. But lately I’ve been rescuing lost children, going on scouting missions, collecting medical packs, protecting my base and surviving the zombie apocalypse – all from the comfort of my gym.

As you run, the app gives you orders and directions through your headphones. You also hear whatever’s happening around you in the zombie world. The objective is to make your way to Able Township, one of humanity’s last remaining bases. Missions include gathering supplies, rescuing survivors and defending the base as you run from the undead.

Zombies, Run! turns the traditional perception of digital gaming on its head. Rather than sitting on your sofa with a console and a controller, the gamer has to exert his or herself to progress.

Motivating people to do something by making it fun is known as gamification; it has tons of benefits and is particularly useful in areas like e-learning. It’s working in fitness, too. Zombies, Run! Has been downloaded more than a million times and gamers have run more than 40 million kilometres.

I’ve definitely contributed a few of those. The only thing that’s missing from this app is the ability to use an Oculus Rift and run on the treadmill at the same time without falling on my face. Maybe one day.

Zombies, Run! on the App Store

2. Pact

“Earn cash for living healthy, paid by members who don’t.”

Screenshots of Pact.

Recently I took a stab at this app and was pretty surprised. Once you’ve signed up you choose from three different “pacts”, or targets for the week: going to the gym, logging your food intake or eating a specific amount of fruit and vegetables. Once your pacts are validated either by logging your location or taking pictures of your veg/food intake, you earn money for the challenges you complete. The more pacts you make and stick to, the more money you pocket.

For the gym pact, you set how often you want to work out – between one and seven days a week. One full workout is a minimum of 30 minutes’ exercise. It’s sensible to give yourself some “cushion” days so select one day fewer than you would usually go for, just in case. You receive $0.50 per day you go, but you must complete your full week’s pact or you will be charged a cash penalty. You set a forfeit from $5 to $30. And every time you fail to complete your pact, you lose money.

I’ve set a four-day gym pact, which earns me $2 a week, paid for by Pact users who fail to hit their targets. $2 may seem like a small amount, but it adds up over time. If the reward was $50 a week, people would find ways to exploit the system.

Adding financial incentives to getting fit is a clever move. Whether you’re striving to earn cash or you’re terrified of losing your own money, the chances are that you’ll be hitting the gym. It’s working for me. Once I’ve earned enough I might treat myself to a new pair of trainers – all thanks to my own hard work.

Pact on the App Store

3. Ingress

“It’s happening all around you. They aren’t coming. They’re already here.”

Screenshots of Ingress.

Though not designed specifically for fitness, Ingress is an augmented reality app that enables you to travel around the real world. The planet’s been invaded by aliens. Your mission is to search for “portals” (usually surrounding famous landmarks) and capture them for the faction you represent. The Ingress world is composed of two factions – “the enlightened” and “the resistance”. Before you play you must decide which side you stand for. Do you believe that the aliens will bring about an enlightenment that will lift humankind or do you believe that you must protect earth from an invasion?

As you walk around with the app open the virtual map displays portals in the green of the enlightened and blue of the resistance. If you see any portals owned by the opposing faction, you make your way to their physical location and start weakening or “hacking” them using virtual tools, which in turn earns you points and gets you closer to capturing portals for your own faction.

As of 2015, Ingress has 7 million players, many of whom operate in teams travelling the country to capture portals. In an era where games consoles and mobile games encourage you to sit down and play for hours at a time, Ingress encourages you to get out and about.

What I like about this app most is that you have to be physically close to the object in the real world to access the portal in the game, which encourages you to walk around and explore more. Many portals are located in prime tourist spots around London, where you might find yourself battling another player in the area to capture a nearby portal. Download this app and see how far it makes you travel.

Ingress on the App Store

Find your motivation

What’s great about all of these apps is that they enhance the experience of exercising without distracting you from their purpose – to get you moving. Fitness apps are so successful because they provide short-term, achievable goals. Before, the only validation you could receive from exercising was the physical change in your body, which could take months to materialise. Now, you can set and complete targets on a daily basis to keep yourself engaged and working towards your longer-term objectives.

Whether it’s running from zombies, defending an alien invasion or chasing cold, hard cash, whatever motivates you, it's likely there’s an app out there that could introduce you to a new way of exercising.

Marina has left The Frameworks.


  • Mobile apps
  • Fitness