Startups Jumpstarting Fitness Motivation with Technology

Losing weight and staying active can be a challenge even for the most motivated of people. But a number of startups are aiming to make it easier, and more fun. The question is, with people notoriously fickly about sticking to fitness regimens and diet plans, can any of them become habit-forming enough to stick around and remain relevant in the long-term?

DietBet, a startup that launched in January, is betting that triggering competitive instincts and making losing weight as engaging as a poker game among friends will help people stick to their resolutions and ensure his site continues to gain traction. DietBet founder Jamie Rosen thinks the key to motivation is social, something he learned when he initially tried to use money as the main driver of weight loss with his original 2009 site MakeMoneyLosingWeight.com.

“While there’s no doubt that putting money on the line motivates you to lose weight, the ‘social dieting’ factors seem to be at least as powerful: the friendly competition, the built-in support network around losing weight together, and just making your weight-loss goals public,” Rosen said. “In fact, the most successful game [on DietBet] so far in terms of weight loss was a game where everyone was playing for charity.”

Competition is a key element for DietBet, but it’s important to temper that drive with a more collaborative angle, too, Rosen contends. “Another lesson [from MakeMoneyLosingWeight] was to design the game to maximize participation and weight-loss success rather than cutthroat competition,” he said. “In that spirit, we set the rules such that that everyone who crosses the finish line splits the pot.”

So far, DietBet seems to be doing a good job of helping people shed pounds while also building up an engaged base of users: Rosen told us that 90 percent of diet-betters drop pounds, and a high percentage return for a second round. In addition to the $1 million already secured by seed investors in 2011, Rosen says DietBet will pursue institutional funding in 2012.

Dieting is one way to lose weight, but other startups are also seeing success addressing other aspects of personal health, including physical fitness. Brian Wang, co-founder and CEO of Fitocracy has seen users flock to his company’s gamified approach to staying in shape. Fitocracy has “well over” 250,000 registered users as of this writing, Wang told us, without a cent spent on marketing. Wang expects to see that total jump when Fitocracy’s iPhone app is released, which he says should happen “in the next month or so.”

Fitocracy emulates a role-playing game, and Wang says the gamified approach came naturally. “We [Wang and co-founder Richard Talens] spent our childhoods as out of shape geeks who spent far too much time playing video games,” he said. “We understood the addictive nature of trying to level up a character in a role playing game and so once fitness became a part of our lives, the connection was clear.”

Wang also emphasizes the importance of community in his app’s success. “We believe that to make fitness stick, you have to give individuals a community that sucks you in and compels you to always come back and interact,” he told us.

Another fitness startup focuses more on providing on-the-spot motivation, and less on tracking data over time. FitFu, an app originally released in 2010, is a tool designed to encourage users to workout whenever they can — during a few spare minutes in the course of a work day, for instance, instead of during a half-hour trip to the gym. FitFu founder Jof Arnold told us that his app aims to appeal to people who otherwise wouldn’t get much exercise.

“A lot of these [fitness] services preach to the converted – apps that encourage competition/tracking amongst those who are already active,” Arnold said. “We’re very different. For us it’s much more impactful persuading someone who’s never exercised in their lives to do a few bits of activity here and there and stick to it.” FitFu released version 2.0 of its app in January, which adds courses and awards that encourage sharing to help amp up the social motivation to maintain an active lifestyle.

Arnold told us he believes the current trend of obsessive tracking of every detail related to fitness isn’t necessarily the best place for health apps to go. “I hope we’ll pass through the current trend of startups persuading people to track everything to receive rewards,” he said. “At best people only have mental space for so much tracking; at worst this tech could lead to unhealthy and obsessive behaviours.” Instead, he points to examples like Zombies Run as a good indicator of a better way to tackle the problem, by making staying active fun without sweating the details too much.

Still, monitoring and measurement is also proving to be a place consumers are interested in. Jawbone’s UP wristband activity monitor was the company’s best-selling product before it was pulled due to defects in a significant percentage of units, the company’s VP of Product Management and Strategy told AllThingsD in January. The Fitbit continues to prove popular, and the company is expanding with new products, including a Wi-Fi smart scale. Low-power connectivity standards like Bluetooth 4.0 appearing in devices like the iPhone 4S will only help increase the prevalence of connected health monitoring gadgets.

Judging by the examples of success so far in fitness startups, finding the right balance to continue to appeal to health-conscious users and achieving broad appeal will be a matter of combining ease of use, a sense of community, rewards and fun into one intuitive package. Better and more sensor-equipped mobile technology will only help companies in their pursuit of finding the right fitness app recipe.