mHealth is fueling the return of behavior modification.

The rise of mobile health apps (or mHealth, one of our 100 Things to Watch in 2011) is fueling the return of behavior modification, a once-maligned blast from the weight-loss movement’s past. These mobile apps, loosely based on findings of the late Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner, help users to set modest goals and track daily progress in order to prompt a gradual change in habits. A recent cover story in The Atlantic, “The Perfected Self,” describes how weight-loss apps such as Retrofit and Lose It are providing people with low-cost, effective ways of permanently shedding pounds. The backlash against fad diets, whose adherents typically gain weight back quickly, is boosting the popularity of such apps.

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Self-tracking, the trend that enables mobile behavior modification, isn’t just for dieters. Among other things, it’s also being adopted for substance abusers (iHeal users wear a wristband that delivers data about body motion, heart rate and skin temperature to a smartphone), diabetics (“Gluco Phones” monitor blood sugar levels), and people looking to improve their exercise regimen or sleep patterns. Currently women track their health indicators with a mobile device nearly twice as much as men, but that’s likely to change as word of the effectiveness of these apps continues to spread. Whether for behavior modification or monitoring chronic health conditions, self-tracking mHealth apps present a new opportunity for marketers seeking mobile advertising opportunities, especially considering how often users have to check their smartphones.