Weak science underpins most fitness apps for frail seniors, experts warn

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For older adults both frail and fit, a plethora of smartphone apps available now designed to help them maintain both physical and mental health. But their rapid introduction has moved much faster than the ability for experts to properly evaluate them, one recent study warns.

In a survey of several dozen apps meant to help frail older adults ith physical exercise regimens, researchers found only one, Vivifrail, that was validated by peer review, they said.

The study authors went as far as to say the majority of apps aimed at frail seniors were “poorly adapted” to their target market. 

Although the researchers did not seem to indicate that older adults should eschew apps altogether, the implication is that caregivers should be aware of the tools’ limitations, and they may need to provide the personalization or adjustments to a routine themselves, rather than relying on the apps’ embedded expertise.

“Despite many applications targeting older adults, they do not seem adapted to their physical and/or cognitive needs,” the study authors wrote. “An app for frail older adults should be simple, intuitive and focused on [personalization]. The majority of apps are designed with minimal knowledge assumed and do not cater to the needs of users without experience, knowledge, and with certain comprehension difficulties in this field.”

The investigators evaluated the apps along several criteria, including whether they allowed for self-monitoring and goal-setting, had educational resources or had a “gamification” element.

Although the researchers were unequivocally skeptical of the current app landscape for older adults, they did call out several tools for uniquely useful provisions, including: MedBridge GO, a home exercise and rehabilitation tool, for being highly interactive; and Ageing Well Fitness, which provides follow-along exercise tips, for having a peer networking function.

Another recent study found that frail older adults are less likely to use fitness apps, as well as other wearables or digital health interventions, than more fit peers. That study, out of Korea, did not look at whether the apps themselves were useful, however. 

Although apps themselves may not be able to produce fitness results on their own, several senior living communities have worked to create “smart gyms” and exercise systems that use monitoring tools and AI to create more personalized programs for residents. 

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