I tried the Apple store's most popular fitness cryptocurrency app - and discovered a potential flaw

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Erin Brodwin / Business Insider

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 cryptocurrency to reach your fitness goals, I was intrigued.

Naturally, I had to give it a shot. Here's how it went.
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The first thing I learned about Sweatcoin after installing it on my iPhone is that it doesn't actually pay you to walk around — at least not in the conventional sense of the term.

The first thing I learned about Sweatcoin after installing it on my iPhone is that it doesn't actually pay you to walk around — at least not in the conventional sense of the term.

The app lets you earn "Sweatcoins," a cryptocurrency 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.

The irony of the fact that my Sweatcoins could only be used to purchase fitness equipment and classes was not lost on me. Nevertheless, I kept the app running in the background of my phone, thinking perhaps it would spur me to move more.

The irony of the fact that my Sweatcoins could only be used to purchase fitness equipment and classes was not lost on me. Nevertheless, I kept the app running in the background of my phone, thinking perhaps it would spur me to move more.

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.

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I also learned that Sweatcoin doesn't track all of your steps — only those the app believes are completed outdoors.

I also learned that Sweatcoin doesn't track all of your steps — only those the app believes are completed outdoors.

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.

Although I started out skeptical, after a few days with the app, I noticed myself subtly favoring outdoor walks with my dog over indoor workouts at the gym.

Although I started out skeptical, after a few days with the app, I noticed myself subtly favoring outdoor walks with my dog over indoor workouts at the gym.

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.

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One day after a particularly long walk, I checked my daily Sweatcoin count and noticed I'd only gotten 5 credits, or coins — the exact same number as the day before, when I thought I'd barely budged. Something was up.

One day after a particularly long walk, I checked my daily Sweatcoin count and noticed I'd only gotten 5 credits, or coins — the exact same number as the day before, when I thought I'd barely budged. Something was up.

After a few minutes swiping around in the app, I realized 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.

In the meantime, I did notice myself walking a little bit more, but I wasn't sure I'd keep it up — or that my slight adjustments were significant enough to make a dent in my overall health.

In the meantime, I did notice myself walking a little bit more, but I wasn't sure I'd keep it up — or that my slight adjustments were significant enough to make a dent in my overall health.

Scientific studies on whether fitness trackers actually change behavior 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 behavior 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.

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Since Sweatcoin is still new, there's not much research yet on whether giving people more concrete rewards for fitness — like Sweatcoins — will help motivate them to move around more.

Since Sweatcoin is still new, there's not much research yet on whether giving people more concrete rewards for fitness — like Sweatcoins — will help motivate them to move around more.

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 program 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 program.

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 said.

Now that I was free to earn more Sweatcoins, I started exploring the social component of the app.

Now that I was free to earn more Sweatcoins, I started exploring the social component of the app.

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.

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But when I looked at my daily leaderboard, I couldn't help but feel a little discouraged when I saw my place near the bottom of the list.

But when I looked at my daily leaderboard, I couldn't help but feel a little discouraged when I saw my place near the bottom of the list.

I take public transit to work and do yoga almost every day, but most of my steps are indoors, so they don't count.

This got me wondering if other users had tried finding another purpose for their Sweatcoins — like making actual money.

This got me wondering if other users had tried finding another purpose for their Sweatcoins — like making actual money.

Sure enough, some users are already selling their Sweatcoin. 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.

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Then I started wondering if you could trick the app to make you think you were walking and earning more than you really were.

Then I started wondering if you could trick the app to make you think you were walking and earning more than you really were.

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.

Turns out, it's not that hard to trick the app — but Fomenko and Derlyatka say they are hard at work trying to improve their algorithms to prevent this. In the meantime, Sweatcoin's terms of use specify that you can get banned from the app if you do so.

Turns out, it's not that hard to trick the app — but Fomenko and Derlyatka say they are hard at work trying to improve their algorithms to prevent this. In the meantime, Sweatcoin's terms of use specify that you can get banned from the app if you do so.

Under its Terms of Use, Sweatcoin specifies that users "shall not ... seek to generate Sweatcoins by any means other than your genuine physical movement." It goes on to specify that users cannot "simulate any such verified movement" or "enlist third parties to generate Sweatcoins on your behalf."

Doing so, it continues, can result in getting banned from the app and having your Sweatcoins revoked.

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The whole point of the app is to get moving outside more. That said, Sweatcoin also collects data on your location and steps — data that it may sell to marketers, as outlined in its privacy policy.

The whole point of the app is to get moving outside more. That said, Sweatcoin also collects data on your location and steps — data that it may sell to marketers, as outlined in its privacy policy.

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 behavior 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."