Do fitness apps also boost your mental health?

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — We are inundated with all kinds of apps to help improve our health, but do they really work? Researchers at the University of British Columbia set out to find the answer by assessing the impact of exercise apps on the mental health of healthcare workers. What did they discover? Simple home workouts using exercise apps also help reduce symptoms of depression.

Study participants, most of them female nurses, were divided into two groups: a waitlisted control group and an exercise group that provided free access to a suite of home exercise apps called DownDog, offering yoga, cardio, and strength training. Over 12 weeks, the exercise group was encouraged to engage in at least 80 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week.

“The exercise group reported significantly lower levels of depressive symptoms compared to the control group as the study progressed… the changes were actually quite amazing to see,” says study first author Dr. Vincent Gosselin-Boucher, in a university release.

The positive effects were most pronounced in participants who consistently completed 80 minutes of weekly exercise.

Person wearing Apple Watch fitness tracker
Health monitor on a smart watch (Photo by Luke Chesser on Unsplash)

Beyond tackling depressive symptoms, the research examined burnout symptoms and sick days over the study period. Exercise notably improved cynicism and emotional exhaustion, two facets of burnout. Additionally, the exercise group reported fewer sick days compared to the control group.

“Offering accessible, easy ways to exercise could be a great tool for employers to support their staff’s mental well-being, in addition to the institutional, provincial, and federal measures currently being undertaken to reduce healthcare workers’ burnout, sick leave and resignations,” says Dr. Eli Puterman, lead author and Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity and Health.

While the study demonstrated the benefits of exercise apps, adherence to the recommended program posed a challenge. Over the course of 12 weeks, adherence dropped from 54 to 23 percent. The researchers plan to explore motivational support, like fitness coaches, to sustain exercise habits. Future trials will also explore broader impacts.

Dr. Puterman urged healthcare institutions to consider various means of supporting physical activity among workers, such as offering gym memberships or exercise spaces within hospitals. Ultimately, addressing barriers to exercise and enhancing mental well-being requires a multifaceted approach.

The study is published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

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