I'm no stranger to fitness apps, having tried everything from an app that promises the benefits of a trip to the gym in seven minutes to a tool that lets you track and share your runs with other users.
But when I first heard about Sweatcoin, an app that "pays you" in a type of currency that it aims to eventually turn into cryptocurrency to reach your fitness goals, I was intrigued. Naturally, I had to give it a shot. Here's how it went.
The app lets you earn "Sweatcoins," or points based on the number of steps you take in a day, which you can then use to buy a limited number of specific goods that Sweatcoin has made available — like a Fitbit tracker, fitness classes, or subscriptions to apps designed to help you eat healthier. Eventually Sweatcoins founders aim for it to be listed on cryptocurrency exchanges, but it isn't yet.
Although I was feeling slightly less enthusiastic about my potential purchases with Sweatcoins after learning how they could be spent, I kept the app running in the background of my phone. If you hard quit the app (or swipe up when you're not using it), Sweatcoin will stop tracking your steps.
Because the app is constantly running on your phone — something that many users have complained drains their battery — it is able to use GPS to roughly determine when you're inside and outside. The only steps that count towards your Sweatcoin earnings are those you take outdoors. Also, the app doesn't sync with Fitbits or other fitness trackers. Instead, it relies on your phone's step tracking software.
Knowing that I wouldn't get any credit for the indoor workouts I did at the gym (and seeing the giddy look on my dog's face every time I took his leash out of the cabinet), I started opting to take him out more frequently. I'd occasionally pull out my phone just to make sure the app was counting my steps, but otherwise I mostly ignored it.
After a few minutes swiping around in the app, I realised the problem was my status. I was still a mere "Mover" — the very first category of Sweatcoin membership — and "Movers" can't earn more than 5 Sweatcoins per day. Even though I'd earned more coins by walking more, I'd maxed out on what I could actually earn because of my level. To earn more, I had to move up a category to "Shaker," but to do so, I had to pay (in Sweatcoins, of course). Not liking either option, I decided to try it out for 30 days for free.
Scientific studies on whether fitness trackers actually change behaviour have been largely inconclusive. Some studies suggest that for specific populations, like people who have been diagnosed with heart disease or are obese, fitness trackers can motivate them to move more, at least for several months. Others studies find that while using the devices may be helpful for certain people, they don't necessarily drive behaviour change on their own. This is something that Sweatcoin co-founders Oleg Fomenko and Anton Derlyatka are aware of. But they believe Sweatcoin will be different.
Still, there is some research that suggests this might be a promising vision for future step-tracking apps. One recent peer-reviewed study of a workplace-based programme that gave employees money for walking suggested that the model could work. Over half the participants — all of whom were hospital employees outfitted with a fitness tracker — met their step goals 12 weeks into the programme.
Fomenko and Derlyatka told Business Insider that internal data suggests the same thing: that giving users real rewards may prove to be the aspect of the app that makes it different from other fitness-tracking software. "We want to show the world that physical movement has economic value," Derlyatka told me in January.
As a former Fitbit user, I'd enjoyed being able to see my friends on the app. I avoided comparing my step count directly to theirs since I can get pretty competitive, but I liked knowing that they were there. It felt like I was embarking on my fitness adventure with a group. Same thing applied to Sweatcoin.
I take public transport to work and do yoga almost every day, but most of my steps are indoors, so they don't count.
Sure enough, some users are already selling their Sweatcoins. And that's OK with Derlyatka and Fomenko. "We are in this for the long-haul. We believe we can create one of the most popular currencies in the world," Derlyatka said.
So I decided to experiment. One evening, I attached my phone to my dog's collar and took him to the park, where he happily tore up the grass with energy. He ran in loops, bounding and skipping. With every joyful leap, I thought of more coins in the bank.
Sweatcoin isn't alone in collecting this information. Hundreds of location-based apps like Foursquare and Swarm do it too. However, Fomenko and Derlyatka said they would never share information on an individual user's health or behaviour to third parties. The data is used exclusively to verify that a user's steps were taken outdoors, Fomenko said. "We would never ever post this information to anyone else," Fomenko said. "The point of it is to verify the movement. So we know that every Sweatcoin in existence was genuinely sweated over by you or me."