Why sports apps can actually be demotivating

11 October 2023 |

They are already well established in elite sports, but amateur athletes are also increasingly using technology to improve their sports performance or prevent injuries. Sports technology is everywhere it seems, but there are pitfalls.

Open your phone’s app store and it is immediately clear: there are thousands of apps available to help you lose weight, improve your fitness levels up or achieve your sporting goals. Add to that the myriad of smartwatches, heart rate monitors, cycling GPS devices ... and it should be obvious: sports technology is a booming business. But in some cases, it can do more harm than good, or it just doesn’t work. Sports innovation expert Kristof De Mey, who specialises in sports technology, wants to tackle the problem.

Summary: Three things to watch out for in sports technology

  • Want to lose weight or exercise more often? Be wary of performance apps and seek professional advice.
  • Are you a performance junkie? Apps are fine, but don’t forget to listen to your body.
  • Be wary of wearables from lesser-known brands. The data they give you can be completely wrong. It may tell you how many steps you’ve taken, but it could be completely wrong when it comes to intense exercise or sleep.

What is sports technology?

But wait, first things first … what exactly is sports technology? Kristof: “As the word itself says, it is technology designed to support sport.” And what falls under this category is very broad. “It ranges from everything that has to do with team sports and how a team should play to get the best results, to what you can do to help your body and how you can rehabilitate the fastest.”

Training better and preventing injuries

At Ghent University, the Victoris consortium, which Kristof heads, focuses mainly on the sports performance category. Scientists there are researching biomechanical parameters (which say something about what the body does during a movement and the effects of that movement has), training methods and tools for rehabilitation and injury prevention.

They are also working on some ingenious technologies. “For example, we are developing an app that’s linked to a sensor that runners wear around their shins. It measures how much impact they have while running. Runners can receive this information in real time as they run, through music on their headphones. Does a runner want to avoid injury? They can adjust their running style based on the sound they hear. The system works like an old-fashioned radio. Running with less stress leads to a purer sound in the ears.”

The reverse effect and the risk of injury

It is a good thing that academia is getting involved in this technology and not just leaving it to the private sector. “We see that there are a lot of applications that can cause harm. In fact, anyone can market an application, so to speak.”

In particular, apps that claim to help you lose weight, improve your fitness levels up and achieve your sporting goals can be dangerous. “These apps are performance-oriented. They can work for athletes who get a kick out of performance, but for someone who wants to go from nothing to being physically active, they often have the opposite effect. They can’t track those achievements, so they’re more likely to quit and start again at zero. In those cases it is quite demotivating.”

But there’s also a potential danger for performance junkies. “The digital medals and trophies push you to do more and more each time, without taking into account what your body needs. That’s how you develop injuries and do more harm than good in the long run.

No standardised framework

For Kristof, there is also a wider problem. He believes that the sports technology sector is something of a jungle. “The market is unregulated, and you don’t know the quality of the technology you’re buying.” In other words, the heart rate monitor on a sports watch can actually indicate anything. “The bigger brands do their own research, but basically they put out whatever they want. There needs to be a binding framework for technology developers to work within. I have been working on this with a number of experts.”

This is not to say that all apps and wearables are potentially dangerous, the business developer stresses. “If you buy a sports watch to track your number of steps or your sports performance, you’re not doing much wrong, as long as you’re not using it for medical purposes and you’re exercising in a healthy way. Want to take your sport to the next level? Then it’s better to let a professional guide you too.”

Data versus gut feeling

Sports technology is also omnipresent in top-level sports. “So much so that the majority of a sports coach’s time is spent with technology. It could be analysing video footage or heart rates, how much they have run or sprinted. These ‘data athlete management systems’, essentially the software that brings all the data together, have become an integral part of sport in recent years.”

But not everyone is convinced. “Especially in elite sport, experience and gut feeling still play a very important role. And to be honest, I understand the doubt,” admits De Mey. “Science is not yet advanced enough to prove that technology improves performance or that teams win more. The link between all the data still needs to be made to get to that point.”

Getting to that point requires more research, innovation and collaboration between science, sport and business. “That’s what makes it such an interesting time to be involved in sports technology. When you see how much it has changed in the last decade, we can only be excited about what the future holds.”

Dr Kristof De Mey is a physiotherapist and manual therapist. He specialises in sports technology and is an innovation and business developer.

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