Do fitness apps really help you get fit? The research results are mixed. But the apps that stand out do so because of a human element.
It was back in 2009 that Apple trademarked the term "There's an app for that!" Back then, it was mostly just a good marketing slogan. Fast forward ten years, and it is pretty much gospel. Android users are currently able to choose between 2.1 million apps, while Apple's' App Store has almost 1.8 million available. A recent Global News report indicated that there are 320,000 health and fitness apps on major app stores. With such a wide selection, it's no wonder it's hard to find the best fitness apps.
That same article also dove into what happened when researchers attempted to find evidence that any of the most popular health and fitness apps work. Sadly, they did not find much. But that's not necessarily because health apps don't work. According to research recently published in the journal Digital Medicine, it's simply that there haven't been many comprehensive studies conducted yet.
Before I get into the undercover part of this article, let's look at the different types of fitness apps available.
Types of Fitness Apps
I previously wrote about how fitness trackers don't lead to weight loss. I referenced one study (from September, 2016) called Effect of Wearable Technology Combined With a Lifestyle Intervention on Long-term Weight Loss. That study (and a few others) showed that people who dared to go without a fitness trackers lost more weight (8 lbs, on average) than their tracker-wielding friends. But this study focussed only on weight loss, not on fitness.
Fitness tracking apps are not a magic bullet for weight loss, but they are useful.
When it comes down to it, I have to admit that I'd have a hard time seriously training with a particular goal in mind without a tracker of some sort. Whether I am preparing for a triathlon, my European bike trip, or completing an effective muscle gain program, tracking my workouts means that I can train intelligently. So sure, the fitness tracking apps are not a magic bullet for weight loss, but they are useful.
Another type of fitness app are the ones that simply generate workouts for you. In many ways, these types of apps only cut down on the amount of searching the internet, or flipping through workout books, that you need to do. If you're a busy person who doesn't want to have to think about what your workout is going to be for the day—and also doesn't have a particular fitness goal in mind—these apps could work for you.
Without getting into the semantics of what Artificial Intelligence really is, the next step up in fitness apps is an automated system that uses a version machine learning (or is it AI?) to help you build your fitness. These apps will monitor heart rate, speed, distance, duration, and perhaps use a fitness test to intelligently customize your workout plan over time. This is a new fitness app frontier that I'm keeping a close eye on. That's especially true when the tech is blended with some cool gear like it is in a stationary bike called CarolFitAI. I'll be talking more about that in a few weeks.
Fitness Coach Connectors
This type of fitness app is my favorite—it allows you to efficiently work with a real human coach without being in the same room. This type of app creates a bridge between you and an expert who has your movement needs and goals in mind.
I recently went undercover and experimented with two of these types of apps. To varying degrees, I found them to be very handy and also a little clumsy. The first one was the app developed by MetPro.
You may recall a recent episode of this podcast where I interviewed the founder of MetPro. During that episode, we talked about how they use a combination of app, text messaging and telephone calls to coach their users. This approach worked just fine for me and seemed entirely satisfactory until I tried Trainiac. Trainiac's app took it to the next level.
Both of these apps connected me with a real live human coach. Keep in mind that I'm focusing solely on the functionality of the app, not the coaches themselves. My coaches on both platforms, Geoff Tripp and Megan Omli, were as excellent as they were unique. I am happy to say that I have kept in touch with both of them and recently featured them in my How to Choose a Coach or Fitness Trainer podcast episode.
The Trainiac App
As with any good client-coach relationship (online or not), this process began with me establishing and communicating my current fitness level, my goals, my gear, and my availability. I also had a chance to get to know my coach. And I have to say that when the first video I received from my coach was filmed on his front porch, in the sunshine, prefaced with the fact that he had just gotten back from an epic mountain bike ride—I knew he was my kind of coach!
Now, to describe my experience with the app, I am going to break it into a few categories: communication, scheduling, tracking and the workouts themselves.
Trainiac has this aspect nailed down. The home screen of the app features messages to and from your coach plus a direct link to your workout(s) for the day. It also has handy text, voice, or video shortcuts. They allow you to choose how you want to communicate with your coach about how your workout went. I generally chose to use text or voice, but on occasion, when I wanted my coach to see how hard he had pushed me, I chose video.
For the most part, my coach scheduled all my workouts (and rest days) for me. But, as the end-user, I also had the ability to schedule (or reschedule) workouts. The interface is simple, easy to read, and easy to use.
When I happened to be on vacation and not able to commit to a specific workout schedule, my coach simply loaded up some appropriate workouts. They were perfect for someone staying at his mom's house, and I could choose and execute them at will.
On the "progress" screen, you can find info like the number of workouts you've completed, amount of weight lifted, and calories burned. There's also a calendar showing when your workouts were completed, and (if you track it) your body weight.
Since I was doing a muscle gain type of program, I was interested in tracking the weights I was using for each exercise. This is crucial for measuring strength improvements over time. I was happy to see that within the workouts themselves (which we'll get to shortly) there was a way to record the number of reps and the weight used.
Most of the fitness apps these days feature videos of each exercise so you can both follow along and learn a new activity quickly and easily. Back in the old days, we would have to write out all the steps, which can be cumbersome, to say the last. But times have changed and video is ubiquitous. Trainiac is no exception. There are buff folks—men and women—demonstrating the workouts in perfect form. There is also a voice-over giving helpful cues and words of encouragement. All of this is set to pumping music, which you can turn off if you prefer .(Which is exactly what I did after a brief honeymoon period).
I performed the first few workouts from Trainiac in my living room using my home gym equipment. I propped up my phone near my exercise mat, put in my Bluetooth earbuds, and launched myself into the workout. It was great! Pumping tunes kept me energized, a strong voice-over gave me cues to engage my glutes or lower my shoulders, and cool video footage helped keep me on track. After each set or superset, I was able to mark the exercise as complete, input the weight I was lifting (when applicable), and move on to the next exercise or set.
Everything was going great until I wanted to listen to a podcast while I worked out (which is my usual jam) and eventually, take the workout to the gym. That is when things got awkward.
After chatting with my coach about the 'no audio or video cue' conundrum, I decided to write the workout on a piece of paper and take that to the gym instead of my vulnerable and sizable phone. This wasn't a bad idea until it came time to recording the workout. When I got home, I had to basically sit through the workout video (using the pause and skip button to move it along quicker) if I wanted to be able to input the weights, reps and other trackable information. Needless to say, I didn't do this for long. Showing my age, I started relying more and more on paper.
But all in all, I really enjoyed the Trainiac experience, not in small part due to having an excellent coach on the other end of the app. Sure there were technical frustrations, but perhaps because I started coaching back when emailing Excel Spreadsheets to my clients was "cutting edge," they were frustrations I could endure.
So, if you are looking for an affordable and slick way to have a "real human coach in your pocket," Trainiac gets my approval. But remember, as is always the case when you are choosing a coach (even a virtual one), make sure you find someone you align with on a personal and professional level. Otherwise, no amount of slick tech will get you to your fitness goals.
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