Increasing the Effectiveness of a Physical Activity Smartphone Intervention With Positive Suggestions: Randomized Controlled Trial


Background eHealth interventions have the potential to increase the physical activity of users. However, their effectiveness varies, and they often have only short-term effects. A possible way of enhancing their effectiveness is to increase the positive outcome expectations of users by giving them positive suggestions regarding the effectiveness of the intervention. It has been shown that when individuals have positive expectations regarding various types of interventions, they tend to benefit from these interventions more.

Objective The main objective of this web-based study is to investigate whether positive suggestions can change the expectations of participants regarding the effectiveness of a smartphone physical activity intervention and subsequently enhance the number of steps the participants take during the intervention. In addition, we study whether suggestions affect perceived app effectiveness, engagement with the app, self-reported vitality, and fatigue of the participants.

Methods This study involved a 21-day fully automated physical activity intervention aimed at helping participants to walk more steps. The intervention was delivered via a smartphone-based app that delivered specific tasks to participants (eg, setting activity goals or looking for social support) and recorded their daily step count. Participants were randomized to either a positive suggestions group (69/133, 51.9%) or a control group (64/133, 48.1%). Positive suggestions emphasizing the effectiveness of the intervention were implemented in a web-based flyer sent to the participants before the intervention. Suggestions were repeated on days 8 and 15 of the intervention via the app.

Results Participants significantly increased their daily step count from baseline compared with 21 days of the intervention (t107=−8.62; P<.001) regardless of the suggestions. Participants in the positive suggestions group had more positive expectations regarding the app (B=−1.61, SE 0.47; P<.001) and higher expected engagement with the app (B=3.80, SE 0.63; P<.001) than the participants in the control group. No effects of suggestions on the step count (B=−22.05, SE 334.90; P=.95), perceived effectiveness of the app (B=0.78, SE 0.69; P=.26), engagement with the app (B=0.78, SE 0.75; P=.29), and vitality (B=0.01, SE 0.11; P=.95) were found. Positive suggestions decreased the fatigue of the participants during the 3 weeks of the intervention (B=0.11, SE 0.02; P<.001).

Conclusions Although the suggestions did not affect the number of daily steps, they increased the positive expectations of the participants and decreased their fatigue. These results indicate that adding positive suggestions to eHealth physical activity interventions might be a promising way of influencing subjective but not objective outcomes of interventions. Future research should focus on finding ways of strengthening the suggestions, as they have the potential to boost the effectiveness of eHealth interventions.

Trial Registration Open Science Framework 10.17605/OSF.IO/CWJES;

Journal of Medical Internet Research
Aleksandrina Skvortsova
Aleksandrina Skvortsova
Assistant Professor