If this habit isn’t part of your workout routine, it won’t be as effective

The rise of fitness apps makes users feel more connected to their workouts more than ever. Being able to track data can help show improvements from where you were months ago, but while apps might send us daily reminders to get our steps or workout in, they alone don’t motivate us to get in our workouts.

It’s the way we interact with them through an online community that can create a competitive but friendly rivalry either with friends or other app users, according to a new study.

Researchers from Flinders University found that exercise apps such as Strava, MapMyRun, and others are best utilized for their community feel, which helps increase physical activity engagement.

The study, published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise, found that individual exercise can become more engaging through communities and social networking as opposed to doing it solely by yourself.

The study was led by Jasmine Petersen, Lucy Lewis, Eva Kemps, and Ivanka Prichard. Prichard said that it doesn’t matter what your age is — the motivation was across the board.

“Sharing posts and receiving encouragement provides the social support many people need to stay motivated with exercise programs — and this doesn’t change across different age groups,” said Prichard in a press release.

It’s an interesting finding considering more than ever group exercise activities have been paused due to the coronavirus pandemic. With gyms and fitness classes paused due to social distancing, individual activities have been on the rise especially for at-home workouts.

Most gyms and boutique fitness places offer apps in order to track your progress which can help increase motivation, but Prichard and her team wanted to see what these apps — like Fitbit, Garmin, and Strava — do in a group setting.

Researchers had nearly 1,300 adults who most used physical activity apps to track their data. They found that people who were more competitive were more active on apps by increasing physical activity to higher levels due to the “game-like incentives” and rewards that often are in apps. Often, these fitness apps will tell you about specific points of interest that can show you your times compared to others like on Strava, where if you were running a virtual half marathon during the pandemic, you could see how your time and splits compared against strangers running similar routes.

“App users are motivated by both the enjoyment derived from physical activity (intrinsic motivation) and the personal value placed on the outcomes of physical activity (identified regulation), and these combined motivations result in greater engagement in physical activity,” Petersen said.

While these apps can prove to create a community feel, there are pitfalls to social networking which researchers warned. Online interactions can cause negative thoughts when analyzing in direct relation to others. It’s similar to how users of Instagram and Facebook react when they see a photo of someone traveling to a remote island or looking like they’re having the time of their lives while you are stuck behind a desk at work, except in this instance, it could cause users to stop working out.

“Engagement in comparisons was associated with lower self-efficacy and higher external regulation, and in turn, lower physical activity,” Prichard said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a surge in fitness apps usage since the start in March. One report said health and fitness apps saw a 67% rise in late March and early April since users were forced to do exercise on their own without gyms open. That trend continued in May, with a 61% increase as well.