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Following Friends in Fitness Apps is Associated with Higher Levels of Physical Activity

Paid Post:CityU College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences

[Sponsored Article]

The past few years have seen huge growth in mobile fitness apps globally. Expecting increased revenue to be generated from this category, app designers strive to add features to enhance the user experience and motivate better performance. 

Dr HUANG Guanxiong, Dr Crystal JIANG Li, and doctoral student SUN Mengru from CityU’s Department of Media and Communication surveyed 643 WeRun users to examine the effects of social networking functions of fitness apps on users’ participation in physical activity. WeRun is a fitness plugin embedded in the most widely used mobile social networking app WeChat in China and has accumulated more than 100 million active users. Similar to other fitness apps, WeRun tracks users’ daily step counts and ranks them among WeRun friends. Users can also “like” their friends’ step counts, and the app will notify the users about the “likes” received. 

The study focused on the ranking and “liking” functions and linked them to social comparison and social support mechanisms. The survey found that checking WeRun rankings and following more friends on WeRun were positively correlated with participation in physical activity. The social comparison mechanism appeared more dominant than the social support mechanism. Specifically, upward comparison (comparing oneself with those who are more competent in a particular task) was positively associated, and downward comparison (comparing oneself to those who are less competent) was negatively related to physical activity participation. 

The more frequently users checked the rankings, the more friends they followed on WeRun and the more upward comparison, leading to more participation in physical activity.  

The study has several implications for motivating physical activity and promoting fitness apps. Fitness app design can benefit from sending more notifications to encourage users to compare their behaviour more often. The design can leverage the positive effects of upward comparison by sending messages like “You are currently ranked fifth, please try hard to make the top three!” However, messages should avoid activating downward comparison as it does not sustain exercise behaviour. Furthermore, as following more friends can motivate participation in physical activity, fitness app design should encourage users to invite more friends to build strong ties with their fitness app activities. 

Publication and achievements

Huang, G, Sun, M & Jiang, LC (2022), Core social network size is associated with physical activity participation for fitness app users: The role of social comparison and social support, Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 129, 107169.
DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2021.107169