Pocket Technology
5:45 am
Fri January 10, 2014

Trouble Getting in a Workout? Try an App That Fines You When You Slack

Listen to the full story.

  We live in an age where our cell phones tell us how much to exercise and what to eat. And people find that it's helping them. 

According to ABI Research, the market for sports and fitness apps is expected to cross $400 million in 2016, thanks to users like Diane Curtis in South Windsor. Curtis, who works for the state Department of Education, began using an app on her cell phone over a year ago.

It’s called Pact. Users make a pact to meet exercise goals, which in Curtis’s case is 30 minutes, three times a week. If she misses her goal, she’d end up paying $5.00 to other Pact users who have achieved their target.

The Land of Steady Habits ranks among the top five states in the amount of money committed by users: $9.18 on average.

"I only had to pay once," Curtis said, "and it was kind of ironic. I’m snowshoeing in the Adirondack Mountains in Lake Placid, and I’m on a five-hour hike. I got disqualified, because it was taking me too long to do my Pact. I paid the $5.00. That was really the only time I ever had to pay. It averages out to be, I think, $1.20 a week that I earn."

The money is made from walking with colleagues during lunch hour, snowshoeing with her husband, and even using the exercise equipment in her basement. During our interview, she told me she was working out on her treadmill, but had to stop midway to meet with me. "This is my page on my phone this morning," she showed me. "Right now, I’m at 26 minutes. If I want to finish my Pact, I have four more minutes. So after you leave, I can go down, put my sneakers on, finish my four minutes, get in the car, and then go to work."

That kind of dedication, said Curtis, couldn’t have happened without her daughter Stephanie Schmid, a personal trainer and marathon runner. Every Sunday, mom and daughter cook together, stocking the fridge with food for the week. Schmid showed me several Tupperware containers filled with sweet potato, avocado, sliced apples, and hard-boiled eggs.

I asked Curtis if money works as an incentive for fitness goals. "If I miss it, I don’t want to be charged $5.00," she said. "That’s a lot. It’s like two cups of coffee from Starbucks. So, definitely [it] motivates me to get my workout in for the day."

San Francisco-based Pact (formerly GymPact) has about 3,000 users in Connecticut. Yifan Zhang, CEO and co-founder, said that number is growing.

The Land of Steady Habits ranks among the list of top five states in the amount of money committed by users: $9.18 on average. The minimum requirement is $5.00 but many users set their penalty amount well above that. Zhang said the business model works because people are extremely averse to losing money.

"My background was in behavioral economics," Zhang said. "I studied this phenomenon called loss aversion. We are about two and half times more motivated by a loss than by gain. We really wanted to harness that for something difficult like exercise.”

According to physician Veena Vani in Glastonbury, fitness apps can help prevent chronic diseases linked to poor diet and lack of exercise. “There are around 50,000 health and fitness apps available for both Apple and Android phones,” she said. “Definitely, using these mobile apps would make it easy for people to track their progress, and get vested in their own health care.”

Sixty percent of 3,014 people surveyed in the U.S. said they track their weight, diet, or exercise routine “in their heads” or with the help of technology. The study conducted by Pew Research Center last year also found that 46 percent of the people who kept tabs on their health data said it had changed the way they managed their health care.

That’s why insurance companies are entering the IT space. Last year, Aetna launched CarePass, an app designed to help users lose a pound, or fit into their favorite jeans. Like many apps in the market, including Pact, CarePass connects to other health and fitness apps, such as Fitbit and Withings.

Daniel Conroy, head of business development, said what’s good for members’ health is also good for the business. "It’s a service provided by Aetna," he said. "In the long run, we benefit from having folks more engaged in their health. If you’re doing things to get off the couch, to move more often, to take your nutrition to a better place – all of those things in the long run [will lead to] what we care about, [which is] better medical outcome."

In the first few days of the new year, when resolutions to lose weight are still strong, companies saw a surge in the number of apps downloaded. Pact added a healthy eating component and pacts with money on the line increased by 64 percent. CarePass also doubled the typical daily web visits in the first week this year, as more people hope to get fit, one app at a time.