Lifestyle

Do motivational apps really work? That may depend on you.

john tomac for the boston globe

Today, while using the Superbetter app, I defeated The Sticky Chair, a notorious bad guy that keeps you sedentary. After being at my desk for a few hours, I stood up, recorded my progress in the app, and was met with rewards: +1 to mental and physical resilience.

Superbetter is just one app that purports to help you be productive, but in a unique way. A growing subset of these apps, which can help you accomplish items on your to-do list or assist you in getting fit, involve applying techniques normally used in games and applying them to other areas. This involves building up the stats for your character in the app, completing challenges, and earning achievements, which help you to gain more rewards.

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Turning some of life’s mandatory tasks into a game can be fun, and it certainly puts a new spin on a daily routine, but does it work?

Locally developed workout app Runkeeper, for example, has a number of challenges that users can choose from. If you want to train for a 10K, for example, there are paced workouts that can help you prepare. If you want to actually run that 10K, you can do it virtually in timed events organized by the app. The Runkeeper philosophy involves creating the means to engage its users and keep them motivated by allowing them to unlock coupons and achievements the more they run.

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“There are people that are busy and need motivating and need that confidence to get out the door. Every single feature we put out motivates people,” said Erin Glabets, director of communications at Runkeeper, who also used the app before working with the company. “I used it to really look back and reflect on how I’m doing. On weeks when I really don’t want to run, I’m definitely more inclined to go out.”

Habitica is another app that uses gaming to — as the name suggests — help people build habits. This is more overtly like a role-playing game (RPG) such as “Dungeons & Dragons” in that you create a character, set a number of short-term or long-term goals, join a party with other Habitica users, and see what you can get done. The more you check off, the more points you’ll have . . . to fight monsters. If there are things left on the to-do list, you lose health points and gain a disadvantage. The app was created by gamers who said they already used games to help them be more productive and recognized that RPGs intrinsically include motivating techniques.

And it’s not just gamers that use the app. Siena Leslie, cofounder of Habitica, said that around 40 percent of users said they didn’t identify as gamers, but used the techniques provided to make something like flossing your teeth everyday seem more fun.

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“Humans like being rewarded for actions they take. We like social components. We like having fun,” Leslie said. “If we take the aspects of games that we find fun and then apply them to things that most people wouldn’t find fun . . . that’s valuable to everyone.”

However, the effectiveness of such apps in the long-term is questionable. You can use them to reward you for going running or getting your errands done, but Wendy Wood, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California, doesn’t believe that they can help you build lifelong habits. She stated that the apps don’t rely on psychological theory and that programmers don’t always understand the biological components of habit formation.

“You can’t always articulate what’s going on when you’re doing the habit. It’s automated in the fact you don’t have to think about it,” Wood said.

Therefore, if a user has to use an app to remember to perform a “habit,” then it’s not really a habit. “Conscious monitoring and motivating and that only works for so long. It doesn’t help with the long term.”

Even the long-term success of apps like Runkeeper, Habitica, and Superbetter aren’t known. But according to a 2011 Consumer Health Information Corporation survey, 26 percent of health and wellness apps are downloaded and used only once. Additionally, 74 percent of users said that after downloading, they dropped out by the 10th use.

However, the survey also states that 26 percent of the applications are used often, suggesting that there are many people who commit to using these apps.

Gaming may not be for everyone, but it seems to work for some. In 2015, Runkeeper boasted around 45 million users and, according to Leslie, Habitica’s community includes people from all kinds of backgrounds building up communities in which to achieve their goals. According to Wood, there’s potential for gamified wellness apps to be effective.

“This is the brave new frontier for app designers to get with people who study behavior change,” Wood said.

Carli Velocci can be reached at velocci.c@gmail.com.
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