The Sport Information Resource Centre
The Sport Information Resource Centre

Despite the plethora of positive health outcomes associated with regular physical activity, only 18% of Canadian adults currently meet national physical activity guidelines (Statistics Canada, 2017). To help buck this concerning trend, ParticipACTION has developed an app to get Canadians active and engaged in a movement for more movement.

The development of the app demonstrates ParticipACTION’s leadership in the field and represents a unique example of knowledge translation. The app is designed not only to motivate Canadians to get moving, but to ensure they understand the reasoning behind it. ParticipACTION is committed to helping people of all physical activity levels reap all the benefits of living an active lifestyle, such as increased energy, improved mood, and even the ability to sleep better.

The multi-functionality of the ParticipACTION app will allow Canadians to set physical activity goals, devise an action plan to achieve them, and to track their progress and successes along the way. With easy how-to videos, at-home workouts, customized content, and suggestions for new activities and sports to try, the ParticipACTION app is “the active app for everyone”.

Weighing the pros and cons of app-based interventions 

Mobile phone use continues to grow in Canada, with over 88% of Canadians subscribing to cell service (Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, 2018). Despite growing concern around people spending too much time on their phones, it presents a unique opportunity to directly connect with society. Existing wearable technologies and smartphone apps can help build awareness around personal physical activity levels – but often they don’t provide the tangible support and education people need to maintain or improve their current physical activity levels. Given the high prevalence of smartphone use among Canadians, coupled with the growing popularity of apps and their utility for tracking, ParticipACTION chose to develop an evidence-informed app geared to help Canadians live a more active life.

Rooted in evidence

The ParticipACTION app is heavily underpinned by the Behaviour Change Wheel (Michie et al., 2011), followed by the Self-Determination Theory (Ryan & Deci, 2017) and the Transtheoretical Model (Prochaska & DiClemente, 1985). Collectively, these theories and models were used as a framework to develop the necessary content and information sequence. This supports the delivery of content in a logical order as users move from selecting and planning their goal, to executing their goal, to evaluating it.

From the Behaviour Change Wheel, specific behaviour change techniques were selected to guide content development. Specifically, barrier identification, action planning, modeling and self-monitoring were used to direct information used for early versions of the app. The Self-Determination Theory is concerned with supporting individuals’ natural or intrinsic tendencies to behave in effective, healthy ways. Consequently, the constructs of this theory were used to develop content focused on motivating individuals to become more active. And while change rarely occurs in a linear fashion, tenets from the Transtheoretical Model were loosely used to create content to support the various stages of change in adopting a more active lifestyle.

Backed by ParticipACTION’s experts

The ParticipACTION app was designed by business agency GALE and mobile app design and development firm Clearbridge Mobile. The app’s strategic and content framework was led by ParticipACTION’s in-house exercise scientist and later confirmed by ParticipACTION’s research advisory group, comprised of eight national and international leaders in physical activity, public and population health, and evaluation research.

Once all content was complete, a final review was performed by the in-house exercise scientist for rigour and accuracy, as well as marketing specialists to ensure all material was on-brand and consistent with ParticipACTION core messaging and tone.

A thorough competitive analysis of other health and fitness-related apps was also undertaken, as well as expert consultation and market research, to help denote the top features associated with a physical activity app. For example, 30 per cent of Canadians reported the integration of an “activity dashboard” to monitor progress as being a factor that would increase the chances of them sticking to and reaching their goals (Maru Matchbox, 2018).

  How the app works

The ultimate goal of the ParticipACTION app is to help Canadians reach national physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) each week (CSEP, 2012). Unlike step tracker apps, only activity performed at a moderate-to-vigorous intensity, otherwise referred to as “active minutes”, is counted toward users’ weekly goal. A user must be moving at a rate of 100 steps/minute – the research-backed equivalent of moving at a moderate-to-vigorous pace (Tudor-Lock et al., 2019) – in order to clock one “active minute”. This focus on MVPA is unique to the ParticipACTION app. The forthcoming app update will allow users to track all minutes of physical activity, regardless of intensity, to deliver a more complete picture of their daily movement. However, moving users to increase their amount of higher intensity activity each week will remain the top goal of the app.

Once enrolled, users are grouped into clusters based three types of data, so they receive a tailored experienced accurately aimed at their physical activity level. First, users will be clustered based on their behavioural data, including proposed activity goals and current activities. Next, transactional data, such as device app information data and daily activity minutes collected by the app, will be utilized. The final layer applied to the clustering is user demographic data, like age, gender, and postal code. The inclusion of additional demographic variables (living with a disability, visible minority, etc.) will help with further segmentation.

For Canadians unsure of what their physical activity goal should be, the ParticipACTION app can help determine a realistic and measurable goal personalized to each user’s physical activity level. This goal is based on their weekly target of “active minutes”.

 As users continue to engage with the app, the data science and machine learning kicks in to provide customized content such as activity suggestions to motivate and keep users on track toward their goal. The more the user engages with the app, the more learning and personalization the app is able to undertake.

Leveraging extrinsic and intrinsic motivation

According to a recent poll conducted by Maru Matchbox (2018), 42% of Canadians think incentives and rewards that celebrate both small and big milestones would be a motivating factor to get them engaged in physical activity.

Rewards play a key role in behaviour change. Recognized as a specific behaviour change technique (Michie et al., 2011), rewards can aid with either abstaining from a negative behaviour or continuing with a positive one. For example, when people are rewarded for good behaviour, in this case moving more, their motivation to continue being active will increase, with hopes of receiving these rewards again. This form of positive reinforcement helps close the feedback loop and conditions us to repeat the behaviour.

Rewards can be extrinsic, such as receiving praise and encouragement from individuals in your social circles or even monetary incentives to continue a particular behaviour streak. Rewards can also be intrinsic, such as feeling good about yourself or experiencing a sense of accomplishment. Typically, intrinsic rewards are more strongly aligned with sustained behaviour change in the long run.

For now, the ParticipACTION app offers a range of extrinsic incentives for users that are tracking towards their physical activity goals and consuming in-app content. The more activity that users track, and the closer they get to meeting their goals, the more opportunity there is to collect badges and accumulate entries toward the weekly, monthly and quarterly prizes.

For future iterations of the app, ParticipACTION will examine how to shift these extrinsic rewards to more intrinsic ones in an effort to solidify behaviour maintenance.

What’s next?

The ParticipACTION app can be downloaded for free from the Apple App Store and from Google Play. The next version of the app (scheduled for Spring 2019) will include additional and more refined features and content as well as the capability to connect to wearables (like Apple Watch, Fitbit and Garmin). The app will continue to evolve based on developing trends and new scientific evidence and research.

 About ParticipACTION

As Canada’s premier physical activity brand, ParticipACTION has been helping Canadians sit less and move more since 1971 through innovative engagement initiatives and thought leadership.


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