The One Fitness App That Hooked Me
Fitbod solves the internal trigger of uncertainty with one tap, telling the user exactly what to do next
Is there a behavior more antithetical to human nature than exercise? Our caveman ancestors, if they could observe our workout habits today, would think we have lost our minds. We lift heavy objects into the air and return them to the exact spot where we picked them up. We buy ridiculous gadgetry (remember the Shake Weight?). We elevate our heart rates as if we are being chased by a saber tooth tiger. And for what? Not to escape danger, per se, but to undo the negative consequences of our overindulgent and underactive modern lifestyles.
In 2017, Americans spent $19 billion annually on gym memberships, according to a survey by credit card data website CreditCards.com. Unfortunately, while many people join gyms, not everyone persists. According to the American Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), on average, about 44% of people who sign up for an annual gym membership quit after just six months.While disheartening, the figure is not surprising. Humans are hardwired to value short-term rewards over long-term benefits. Known as hyperbolic discounting, this is a cognitive bias that causes people to choose smaller, immediate rewards rather than more meaningful, delayed rewards. This is why so many of us will opt to stay longer under a warm blanket in bed rather than invest in the future benefits of working out. I know that dichotomy all too well. I’ve struggled with working out for as long as I can remember. As an obese child, my mother dragged me to the gym to help me slim down. As a lazy teenager, I joined the high school wrestling team in a desperate attempt to get in shape but never won a single match. As an adult, I tried to prioritize the gym as part of my routine countless times but failed each time. Who of us is not familiar with the uneasy feeling of standing around in the gym, not knowing what to do, and feeling you are in everyone’s way. Enter Fitbod. Fitbod is a beautifully designed app that has helped me consistently hit the gym for over two years. Over three million people have downloaded Fitbod, and it is consistently ranked among the top-grossing and top-rated apps in its Apple App Store category. While the app has been incredibly useful to me, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my book, Hooked, was useful to the app’s founders.
Fitbod is the brainchild of Allen Chen, a fitness enthusiast who has been lifting weights for over a decade. Still, he told me in a recent conversation, he would walk into the gym, each time not having a clear plan of what to do. “I wanted my phone to just tell me which muscles I needed to engage,” he said.In 2015, after reading Hooked, Chen designed a prototype for the app based on the Hooked Model of habit formation: trigger > investment > reward > action. The uncertainty of not knowing what to do in the gym was the internal trigger, or actuator of the behavior. Having identified the first step of their hook, the internal trigger of uncertainty, Chen and his college friend and Fitbod partner Jesse Venticinque needed to ensure Fitbod’s Action phase would quickly solve the user’s psychological need by providing certainty about what they should do in the gym. With one tap, Fitbod creates my next workout, removing the discomfort of uncertainty by quickly telling me which exercises to do, in what order, how much weight to lift, how many repetitions to do, and even how long to rest between sets. By generating the workout program on the fly, Fitbod overcomes some of the stumbling blocks associated with other fitness programs. For instance, whereas most of Fitbod’s competitors ask users to embark on a lengthy multi-week program, Fitbod requires no long-term commitments. Similarly, if users fall off track, they can easily get back to the next best workout. The reward phase of Fitbod has to do with the joy of discovering which new exercises the app chooses for me (rewards of the hunt). The app also taps into the intrinsically rewarding elements of exercise. No corny badges or points here— just the satisfaction of conquering the exercise. By giving users clear weight and repetition goals for each activity, Fitbod harnesses the search for mastery and competence endemic to rewards of the self. There is variability in seeing if you can smash your personal best. And Fitbod helps by setting achievable, incremental goals with each exercise.
Finally, Fitbod gets smarter with use, a characteristic of well-designed, habit-forming products. The investment phase occurs every time I log an exercise. By entering data, I’m storing value in the service and ensuring it improves the more I use it. With my previous exercise information, the app tailors future sessions and recommendations. I can also invest more value in the app by tailoring my fitness goals, available equipment, and even how much time I have to work out — all factors the app uses to compute my next tailored workout.