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The ability to keep fit has hit speedbumps throughout this year as many parts of Australia have been bunkered down in lockdown due to the intensifying COVID-19 pandemic. 

Closed gyms, halted sporting competitions, and restrictions on movement have made it difficult for many to maintain their regular exercise routines.

To counter the situation, Flinders University researchers believe fitness apps, especially those that include social connection with an online community, can play a significant role in keeping people active.

Less traditional, self-managed exercise programs have their advantages, the researchers, who conducted a study to evaluate the psychological and mental health barriers which promoted or prevented people from engaging with physical activity apps during the initial COVID-19 lockdown in April-May last year, argue.

“We’re interested in how using technology such as mobile apps during lockdown can provide people with opportunities to be physically active, and how people’s state of mind might affect this,” says lead researcher Jasmine Peterson, from the Caring Futures Institute at Flinders University.

“It’s important for people to keep active during lockdown, particularly if their mental health or self-motivations are affected by lockdown during the pandemic.”

Ms Peterson says the closure of indoor and outdoor sporting facilities, cancellation of sporting competitions, isolation, social distancing, and travel restrictions have all affected Australians’ engagement in physical activity.

The study, Psychological mechanisms underlying the relationship between commercial physical activity app use and physical activity engagement, found more than half (53%) of the 408 Australian adults (80% females) surveyed in the national online study reported a corresponding decline in physical activity on the back of lockdown. Only 24% reported an increase in activity.

Their fitness before going into lockdown was compared with their subsequent social support networks, general mental health and motivation to start using fitness apps during the April-May lockdown.

Social support (from family, social media), self-efficacy (an individual’s beliefs in their ability to perform physical activity) and motivation were found to be crucial in respondents seeing the value of physical activity, making them more likely to use apps during lockdown.

The most frequently used apps were Strava (23%), Fitbit (16%), and Garmin (10%). Participants reported using their apps seven times per week (35%), followed by five times (13%) and three times per week (13%).

More than half (54%) of app users reported that the fitness app they were currently using had an app-specific community. Of these, 55% reported engaging with the community. Further, most app users (83%) engaged with existing social networking platforms in relation to physical activity.

The main types of exercise engaged in during last year’s COVID-19 lockdown were walking (43.5%), running (19%), home workouts (16%), yoga/pilates (6%), cycling (5.6%), and strength training (3.1%).

Given the results, researchers recommend interventions using physical activity apps to increase social support, self-efficacy and autonomous motivations to support engagement in physical activity during the pandemic.

“Commercial physical activity apps are accessible, affordable, and an easy step for people to maintain their physical activity during a pandemic, and thus the use of these apps should be promoted and encouraged,” says health psychologist Associate Professor Ivanka Prichard, senior author of the paper, which was published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise.

“If the reported reductions in physical activity during the COVID-19 lockdown are contributing to heightened levels of depression, anxiety, and stress, it is imperative that interventions are designed to support engagement in physical activity during a pandemic to foster positive physical and mental health outcomes” she says.