Social support patterns of middle-aged and older adults within a physical activity app: Secondary mixed method analysis

Zakkoyya H. Lewis, Maria C. Swartz, Eloisa Martinez, Elizabeth J. Lyons

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Background: Physical activity (PA) is critical for maintaining independence and delaying mobility disability in aging adults. However, 27 to 44% of older adults in the United States are meeting the recommended PA level. Activity trackers are proving to be a promising tool to promote PA adherence through activity tracking and enhanced social interaction features. Although social support has been known to be an influential behavior change technique to promote PA, how middle-aged and older adults use the social interaction feature of mobile apps to provide virtual support to promote PA engagement remains mostly underexplored. Objective: This study aimed to describe the social support patterns of middle-aged and older adults using a mobile app as part of a behavioral PA intervention. Methods: Data from 35 participants (mean age 61.66 [SD 6] years) in a 12-week, home-based activity intervention were used for this secondary mixed method analysis. Participants were provided with a Jawbone Up24 activity monitor and an Apple iPad Mini installed with the UP app to facilitate self-monitoring and social interaction. All participants were given an anonymous account and encouraged to interact with other participants using the app. Social support features included comments and likes. Thematic coding was used to identify the type of social support provided within the UP app and characterize the levels of engagement from users. Participants were categorized as superusers or contributors, and passive participants were categorized as lurkers based on the literature. Results: Over the 12-week intervention, participants provided a total of 3153 likes and 1759 comments. Most participants (n=25) were contributors, with 4 categorized as superusers and 6 categorized as lurkers. Comments were coded as emotional support, informational support, instrumental support, self-talk, and other, with emotional support being the most prevalent type. Conclusions: Our cohort of middle-aged and older adults was willing to use the social network feature in an activity app to communicate with anonymous peers. Most of our participants were contributors. In addition, the social support provided through the activity app followed social support constructs. In sum, PA apps are a promising tool for delivering virtual social support to enhance PA engagement and have the potential to make a widespread impact on PA promotion.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number12496
JournalJMIR Aging
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jul 2019


  • Aged
  • Fitness tracker
  • Middle aged
  • Physical activity
  • Social support
  • Technology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geriatrics and Gerontology
  • Gerontology
  • Health Informatics
  • Health(social science)


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