How Mobile Phones Are Impacting Our Health and Fitness

While some see phones as bad for our health, many more are using them to achieve fitness levels that they wouldn't otherwise reach. We caught up with a few fans of smartphone fitness to find out how their device has encouraged them to get active.

12 September 2016, 2:25pm

From the column 'O2 Presents #NewNormal'

Brought to you by the #NewNormal, O2's mission to question, explore and understand how mobile is changing the way we act and interact as humans. Read more #NewNormal stories here.

UK adults are now spending upwards of 25 hours per week online, and it's affecting our wellbeing. Necks hurt as we bend to stare at our phones, sleep is disrupted by late night social media updates, and 59% of us claimed to be 'hooked' to our devices. It didn't used to be like this. Long before the omnipresent mobile phone became the #newnormal, we would dance in the fields and sleep under the stars...Whether our nostalgia for an analogue past is misplaced or not, these days we're trying to wean ourselves away from Wi-Fi. According to a recent study by Ofcom, more than a third of UK internet users have attempted to complete a 'digital detox'.

Yet while some see phones as bad for our health, many more are using their device to achieve fitness levels that they wouldn't otherwise reach. Over the past few years, people have been motivated to workout thanks to new apps that provide workout routines, attainable goals, and bit of healthy competition. I recently caught up with a few fans of smartphone fitness to find out how their device has encouraged them to get active.

Kyle, 31, claims he was never a "gym guy" before he downloaded a fitness app called StrongLifts 5x5. "When I was in my twenties I was more interested in punk and drinking than working out" Kyle tells me. "Then after a decade of getting on it and generally feeling paunchy and gross, I decided to pack in the booze and get in shape before it was too late." Unfortunately, Kyle didn't really know how to go about this. While he'd occasionally jogged around his local park, he'd never been in a weight room let alone followed a workout routine. Stronglifts 5x5 helped him to get started. "It basically told me what exercises to do, how much to lift, and what muscle groups I should workout on each day." The app also encourages you to increase your lifts by 5lbs every week. "I certainly feel stronger", Kyle tells me. "I definitely wouldn't have known what to do if it weren't for the app. Ditching the pints and tabs also helps."

While smaller programs like 5x5 cater to more specific needs, there are well-known apps that are effectively taking over the fitness world. With the exception of two, almost everyone person I spoke to was a fan of fitbit. The small device is essentially a pedometer on steroids, measuring not just daily steps, but heart rate and quality of sleep. It links to an app on your phone which charts your progress via a bluetooth connection. There are a number of reasons for its success, but for Johnny, a 25-year-old account manager from London, the fitbit is the perfect antidote to the spiraling cost of gym memberships in the capital. "I lived in London for a few months and couldn't really afford a membership at a decent gym, so I decided to go the opposite way and eat loads of pizza," Johnny says.

"Naturally, I gained a lot of weight." So what did he do? "My girlfriend bought me a Fitbit for Christmas after I'd been looking into them online. I wear it everyday. It's a good feeling to look at your phone and see you've walked a certain amount of steps or burned a certain amount of calories."

He's even wearing it to the club. "I once wore it on a night out and apparently I burned over 6,000 calories with my jazzy dancing and whatnot." He admits that he may have offset that with all the booze he drank, but still recommends it for alcohol free scenarios: "If you're struggling to get fit or motivate yourself, I'd definitely recommend getting one."

Part of that motivation comes from the friendly competition fitbit inspires. Julie, 28, is always motivated to get her steps in due to the competitive nature of her family. "Fitbit is super motivating because you have people on it that you compete against - in my case everyone in my family. I'm in a difficult league because my dad is a freak athlete and regularly walks over 120k steps per week." Having just moved to London from the States, the app is also a way for her to keep in touch with family back home, "without actually having to call them every day."

Mel, 22, also told me that the competitive nature of Fitbit means she's always motivated to use it. However, her reason for starting didn't stem from any desire to compete. "After working a desk job for a year I realised that I'd become uncomfortably fat. So I bought a Fitbit and I've been using the app to log my food and exercise every time I go to the gym."

Her colleagues are also on board. "A few other people I work with have them too, so we can challenge each other to see which one of us gets the most steps. It sounds sad, but I hate losing. It's worked though, as I'm a stone down and I've only got another stone to lose before I'm back to what I weighed before I started my job."

Apps like Fitbit and 5x5 clearly appeal to people who may lack the motivation to exercise. They're easy to use, fun, and they're not asking you to run an ultra-marathon or deadlift 400 kilos. However, if you are an elite amatuer athlete, there are apps that will really push you to the limit. Justin, 35, has always been a keen athlete, and regularly competes in triathlons and marathons. To put his training to the test, he uses an app called Strava. "Strava lets you compete against other people in running and cycling. If you run a certain route it will add your time to a leaderboard so you can see how it compared to other people."

This is huge motivation for Justin. "Even though I've never met these other users I feel like I have to better their times. It's addictive, but it also means I feel great whenever I compete in an actual event."

One of the great downfalls of social media is how people can curate their output. When you scroll through Instagram or Facebook, you'll often be confronted with pictures of holidays, cocktails, weekend breaks, and all the other trappings of moderate success that cripple us with jealousy when we're stuck in an office. It's why FOMO was invented. It's why we hanker for digital detoxes. Yet when it comes to fitness apps, this phenomenon is having a far more positive effect on us. We're able to see what others are doing - in the gym, during a run, or on a ride - and rather than feel jealous, we're trying to match, or even beat, their score.

It's clearly now the #newnormal to be dependent on apps for our fitness and health. And even though many apps inspire a punishing level of competition – often relating to our careers, our love lives, or our incomes – fitness apps succeed because they inspire something that's so often missing in our fiercely connected world lives: good old fashioned healthy competition.

Find out more about the #NewNormal right here.