To help out a podcast at my work that was doing a series on apps to help people be happier, healthier, wealthier and more productive, I volunteered to try out Pact for a month. And in honor of the New Year, I decided to write a review for Rampant Discourse. So here are my impressions after 4 weeks (and running) using Pact, the app that claims to let you “Earn Cash for Exercising”.
What is Pact?
Pact (formerly known as GymPact) is an app that is available for Android and iPhone. The basic premise is pretty simple: individuals bet on themselves to carry out some task each week (workout 3 times a week, log their food intake, eat 6 servings of fruits and vegetables, etc). If they successfully carry out that task, they make a little money. If not, then they pay money. The money paid by those failing their tasks goes to those who succeeded in their tasks, creating a nice self-contained ecosystem. The theory behind it all is that putting money on the line (both the fear of losing it and desire to acquire it) creates a more powerful incentive than simply wanting to eat healthier or work out more.
How does it work?
After installing the app and creating an account, the user is instructed to connect a method of payment (to pay for failures and get credited for successes). The two options are a credit card or a PayPal account. I went with the PayPal account, because I was a little worried about providing my credit card number and figured PayPal would provide me with an extra level of protection. I ran into a little issue connecting my account (see screenshot to the right), but eventually figured out how to enter my information, even if I couldn’t see what I was doing.
Once that was taken care of, the next step was creating a pact. There are three different types of pacts that can be created:
- Food Logging – Commit to logging your meals using the MyFitnessPal app. At least three meals and 1,200 calories must be logged per day to count.
- Veggie – Commit to eating a certain number of servings of fruits and vegetables. A picture must be taken and submitted for review by the community to count. Multiple servings can be counted in a day.
- Gym – Commit to working out a certain number of times a week (although only one workout per day can be counted). Workouts can be tracked a few different ways:
- Motion Tracking – Using your phone’s accelerometer (presumably in conjunction with an armband), individuals have an hour and a half to log 30 active minutes.
- Connected Apps – Pact can be connected to MapMyFitness and RunKeeper to log runs. Individuals must run for over 30 minutes and cover at least 1 mile, averaging at least 2 mph.
- Step Tracking Devices – Pact can count steps from Jawbone UP, Moves and FitBit devices. Individuals must log over 10,000 steps in a day.
- Gym Check-Ins – GPS can be used to submit a check-in to a verified gym, where users have to stay for at least 30 minutes before checking out.
After choosing to create a pact (or two or three), it’s time to choose the level of commitment (how many times a week) and the money at stake for not meeting those commitments. It’s interesting to note that the payout for success is determined solely by the number of sessions committed to. In other words, increasing the amount of money at stake for failure does not increase your potential payout. After the commitment and stakes are chosen, your pact will start in the next coming week and run from Monday to Sunday inclusive.
My month using Pact
So how was my experience using Pact? When I was researching the app, I decided to check out reviews on the Google Play Store and my resolve was immediately shaken a bit. A few things I noticed:
- The app description proudly touted Pact as: “the most effective way to keep your fitness and weight loss resolutions in 2015!” despite the fact that 2016 was nearly over at the time and it still says that even in 2017.
- There were a lot of 1 star reviews. More than there were 5 star reviews. I browsed through the reviews and saw quite a few warning “DO NOT USE!!!” and referring to the developers as “scam artists” and wishing they could leave 0 star reviews.
However, among those worrisome reviews were also more positive reviews. My hope was that the negative reviews were either due to user error or bugs from a previous version that had been fixed (although the 2015 line had me worried about that). My hope was that if I was extra careful, I wouldn’t fall prey to any surprise monetary losses. That desire to be extra cautious is why I went with the PayPal connection mentioned above. As it turned out, it seems my initial hunch was largely spot on. After a month testing out Pact I discovered that it mostly worked, albeit with a few concerning bugs and questionable design decisions that could make it very easy to go astray.
For the first week, I decided to start a food logging pact using MyFitnessPal because I was already using MyFitnessPal to track my meals. So in theory this pact wouldn’t introduce any extra work on my part. It also seemed like the most straightforward pact to start with and the one with the least points of failure. Either the connection between MyFitnessPal and Pact worked, or it didn’t. Even so, I started conservative and only pledged to track a few meals and set the stakes low as well. Despite some initial confusion regarding exactly when the pact started and ended (a common theme during my time with the app), I easily met my goal. There was also no immediate indication of exactly how much I had made for completing my goal, but I wasn’t terribly concerned and figured it would show up eventually.
Great! With my first pact in the bag with minimal trouble, I decided to double my pleasure and add an extra pact for my second week. I added a veggie pact, again starting conservatively, in addition to resuming the food logging pact. This is where things started to get a little more difficult. I’m not sure whether it was because I was a new user or because this was during the holiday season or for some other reason, but some of my pacts had “bonus” days which allowed me more time to complete them. This seemingly caused some pacts to run over into other weeks and cause me utter confusion as to how I was progressing. Click on the screen shot on the right for an example of what I’m talking about. The screen was showing my pacts from the week of 12/5-12/11, including my just started veggie pact, but it was also showing my food logging pact from the previous week (despite the fact that I thought I should have a new one for the current week). To this day, I’m still not entirely sure what happened in that week, except that ultimately Pact seemed satisfied that I completed everything and I wasn’t charged for missing anything. Still, it led to a bit of anxiety during that week.
Luckily, the veggie logging functionality was incredibly simple and easy to use. Three quick taps from within the app is all it took to bring up the camera, and after disabling Facebook sharing (which was on be default, another questionable design decision) it was incredibly easy to submit for review. Typically my submissions got approved within an hour, and I never had one get turned down.
Ironically (considering what the app was originally called), the last pact I tried was gym logging. I was worried this would be the most problematic because I didn’t belong to a gym and while I had step tracking devices, I didn’t have one of the compatible ones. My preferred running app was Endomondo, but I figured I could download MapMyFitness to try it out. I created my account, went to link it with Pact and… Oops! See the screenshot to the left. To their credit, Pact technical support was shockingly quick to respond to my request for help. They tried resetting something, but when it still didn’t work, they responded with, “We are working to resolve the MapMyFitness integration issue”, so it sounds like a known issue. Regardless, that was another untenable option.
Luckily, there was still the accelerometer option. I happened to have an armband for my phone, so I turned on the motion tracking, slipped my phone in the armband, booted up some Xbox Fitness, and got my sweat on. My workout was 30 minutes, but apparently not every minute had vigorous enough arm movements to count, so I had to do a little extra at the end. Luckily, Pact allows users 90 minutes to get in those 30 active minutes and the majority of my workout counted. Despite my reservations, this too seemed to be relatively functional and easy.
Was it effective?
So I was able to create pacts of each type and fulfill those pacts successfully while making a small amount of money and avoiding any penalties. That’s great. But do I feel like it helped me lead a healthier life? That’s still pretty unclear. For food logging, Pact only cares that you log food, not if that food is healthy. I distinctly remember one day (that I am not proud of) where I logged that I had eaten an entire large Pizza Hut BBQ chicken pizza, multiple cans of soda, and topped it off with chocolate pie. None of those are remotely healthy foods, and my total calories for the day were approximately double what they should’ve been. Yet Pact happily accepted that food logging as a success. Just because you log your food doesn’t mean you’re making good decisions.
Just because you log your food doesn’t mean you’re making good decisions.
I also noticed some subtle changes for the veggie pact as well. While I mostly just photographed fruits and vegetables from meals I was going to eat regardless of my pact, there was at least once or twice when, realizing I was in danger of failing my pact, I tracked down a fruit to eat specifically to fulfill the pact requirements. Another win.
The gym pacts are hardest for me to judge. I could easily see it being effective for people who own Fitbits or who can get MapMyFitness connectivity to work. However, having to deal with the process of checking into a gym or dealing with a phone on an armband while working out (and making sure to choose activities that involve enough arm movements to count) seems like it could get old pretty fast. Having said that, my gym pact did cause me to do an Xbox Fitness exercise that I wouldn’t have otherwise done, so I suppose that’s another win there.
The app isn’t without some trouble areas, though. I’ve already mentioned a few above, but here are a few more:
- The payouts aren’t that great. Despite having used the app for over a month now, with multiple pacts for most of those weeks and some significant risk in terms of potential money lost if I screwed up. I’ve only made a little over $3 so far over my month of use. That could all be wiped out (and then some) with a single missed veggie logging on the lowest setting ($5). That’s not terribly impressive, and it’s hard to see that small amount of money motivating too many people.
- There are occasionally unexplained problems. MyFitnessPal largely worked without a hitch, but I did notice that one week Pact didn’t seem to pick up my log for the day. I have no idea why. Maybe I didn’t have all the data in before midnight (I sometimes fill in stuff the next day if I forget). Maybe I forgot to hit “Complete Diary”? I don’t know. I’m just glad I had built in one day of wiggle room so that missed day didn’t end up costing me my entire winnings over the course of the month and then some.
- This is the big one: There is no way to delete a pact.Once you have created a pact (food logging, veggie or gym), it appears to be stuck to your account (with you on the hook for not completing it) forever. So if I started a gym pact and then decided it’s not for me? Too bad, there’s no going back. There are only two options. The first is that the pact can be paused (although the current week still has to be completed) for up to 3 months. The second option is that you can delete your account. That’s it. In fact, you have to make sure you specifically delete your account and not just remove the app from your phone. Removing the app from your phone alone doesn’t delete your account, it just makes it impossible to complete those pacts that you’re still on the hook for. To me, this is a shockingly bad design decision and likely a major contributor to the app’s negative reviews. I can easily see a scenario where somebody tries out the app, runs into some trouble, decides it isn’t for them and just deletes the app, thinking they are off the hook. A few weeks later, they notice Pact has pulled money from their account and understandably wonder why. It’s mind-boggling to me why there is no option to delete a pact.
There is no way to delete a pact.
Now that my review month with Pact is over, will I continue to use it? Sadly, I think the answer is no. As of today, I’m still doing food logging and veggie pacts, and I’ll likely continue to do those at least until I get enough money to cash out. It appears that $10 is the minimum to withdraw, so I’ve got another few months to go. I’ve placed the gym pact on hold for 3 months, but I plan on deleting my account before then. The inability to delete pacts has really left a bad taste in my mouth. The low payout combined with the large potential penalties for missing a day of logging makes it seem too much risk for too little reward. Pact seems like it has potential, but until it sorts out some of its bugs, adds more partners for step devices and connected apps, and (most importantly) adds the ability to delete a pact, I don’t think I can recommend it to others right now.