mHealth technology for ecological momentary assessment in physical activity research: a systematic review
PeerJ -- PeerJ
DOI 10.7717/peerj.8848
  1. mHealth
  2. EMA
  3. Ecological momentary assessment
  4. Physical activity
  5. Health
  6. Lifestyle
  7. Smartphones
  8. Mobile devices
  9. Systematic review
  10. eHealth


To systematically review the publications on ecological momentary assessment (EMA) relating to physical activity (PA) behavior in order to classify the methodologies, and to identify the main mHealth technology-based tools and procedures that have been applied during the first 10 years since the emergence of smartphones. As a result of this review, we want to ask if there is enough evidence to propose the use of the term “mEMA” (mobile-based EMA).


A systematic review according to PRISMA Statement (PROSPERO registration: CRD42018088136).


Four databases (PsycINFO, CINALH, Medline and Web of Science Core Collection) were searched electronically from 2008 to February 2018.


A total of 76 studies from 297 potential articles on the use of EMA and PA were included in this review. It was found that 71% of studies specifically used “EMA” for assessing PA behaviors but the rest used other terminology that also adjusted to the inclusion criteria. Just over half (51.3%) of studies (39) used mHealth technology, mainly smartphones, for collecting EMA data. The majority (79.5%) of these studies (31 out of 39) were published during the last 4 years. On the other hand, 58.8% of studies that only used paper-and-pencil were published during the first 3 years of the 10-year period analyzed. An accelerometer was the main built-in sensor used for collecting PA behavior by means of mHealth (69%). Most of the studies were carried out on young-adult samples, with only three studies in older adults. Women were included in 60% of studies, and healthy people in 82%. The studies lasted between 1 and 7 days in 57.9%, and between three and seven assessments per day were carried out in 37%. The most popular topics evaluated together with PA were psychological state and social and environmental context.


We have classified the EMA methodologies used for assessing PA behaviors. A total of 71% of studies used the term “EMA” and 51.3% used mHealth technology. Accelerometers have been the main built-in sensor used for collecting PA. The change of trend in the use of tools for EMA in PA coincides with the technological advances of the last decade due to the emergence of smartphones and mHealth technology. There is enough evidence to use the term mEMA when mHealth technology is being used for monitoring real-time lifestyle behaviors in natural situations. We define mEMA as the use of mobile computing and communication technologies for the EMA of health and lifestyle behaviors. It is clear that the use of mHealth is increasing, but there is still a lot to be gained from taking advantage of all the capabilities of this technology in order to apply EMA to PA behavior. Thus, mEMA methodology can help in the monitoring of healthy lifestyles under both subjective and objective perspectives. The tendency for future research should be the automatic recognition of the PA of the user without interrupting their behavior. The ecological information could be completed with voice messages, image captures or brief text selections on the touch screen made in real time, all managed through smartphone apps. This methodology could be extended when EMA combined with mHealth are used to evaluate other lifestyle behaviors.