Feb 13, 2015

    Getting fit: Personal trainers v apps

    ACTIVITY trackers. Calorie counters. Phones with heart monitors.

    Technology companies are clearly fascinated with fitness and health these days. As technology starts pushing us to be healthier and fitter, some apps are even trying to replace the personal trainer or the gym entirely.

    The idea is pretty simple: While personal trainers can create a safe and effective workout, they can be expensive and sometimes inconvenient. A fitness app, though, can travel where you are and is relatively inexpensive - and sometimes even free.

    So I spent last month on a personal fitness challenge, seeing what provided a better workout: a real personal trainer or a personal training app. While the trainer pushed me hard and motivated me to keep my expensive appointments, I found that the app was best suited to my lifestyle and might have the most long-term potential.

    There are many fitness app options and a wide range of prices. Fitness Buddy offers a huge free library of exercises, so you can build your own workout, as well as some free and some paid workouts for US$5 (S$7) a month or US$30 a year.

    But the best option I found was FitStar, a free personal trainer app. For US$40 a year, you get access to more workouts. From the apps I tried, FitStar was the closest to using an actual trainer, because it can build workouts customised to your fitness level and goals.

    The workouts range from 10 to 50 minutes and, while some apps just have you repeat the same exercises over and over, FitStar mixes up the exercises as you go through its programmes. The workouts gradually get harder and you can rate each exercise individually as too easy, just right or "brutal". So if you have strong legs, the app will quickly learn to work them really hard. If your upper body is relatively weak, the app adjusts to work on those muscles, starting at a lower intensity level.

    The founders of FitStar said they worked with exercise physiologists and personal trainers to come up with a baseline collection of workouts. The app uses the anonymous data collected from all their users to adjust individual programmes for each user.

    Mike Maser, co-founder and the chief executive of FitStar, said he believed "100 per cent" that people could get themselves into shape using only FitStar, but he said the app could also be used alongside a personal trainer's regimen.

    FitStar is convenient and fun to use. Workout videos are hosted and narrated by the personable former NFL player Tony Gonzalez, featuring his wife and some other athletes.

    The app does not require weights or other equipment, which makes it easy to use anywhere. It integrates with MyFitnessPal, which is my favourite app for tracking calorie intake. When you perform a workout, FitStar automatically sends the number of calories burned to MyFitnessPal, so you know how many more you can have that day.

    I noticed the progression of the workouts over the course of the month. One downside, though, is that you cannot opt to change your fitness level after you start the programme to make your workouts significantly harder or easier. If the exercises are not intense enough, you can only tell the app that the exercises are too easy, and the app will slowly increase the intensity the next time. The app cannot adjust workouts for injury - a problem for me, since I have a foot injury that limits range of motion.

    By contrast, working with a trainer took me well out of my comfort zone, protected my injury and probably produced faster results. Like the apps, however, there are many types of trainers.

    I had a personal recommendation to try Alison Roessler, who runs Truve, a private training and wellness centre in Oakland, California. If you do not have a recommendation that you trust, Ms Roessler said, a key to finding a good trainer is to ask about their certifications and qualifications. Also, make sure the trainer evaluates your capabilities and injuries before you start.

    Ms Roessler is an athlete who was a runner and soccer player before she started Truve. She charges US$100 an hour for training sessions and said she tries to avoid repeating workouts.

    Not surprisingly, the workouts with Ms Roessler were much more difficult than the workouts with the app - probably because I underestimated my fitness ability when I filled in my FitStar profile. As a result, when my trainer pushed me to try more difficult workouts after just a few sessions, I felt a real sense of accomplishment.

    FitStar did not push me as far, as fast. If you were starting from scratch and trying to get into shape with only FitStar, the results might be slow in coming, which could cause you to get frustrated and abandon the app.

    However, convenience and price count for a lot and, in the long run, FitStar's location-agnostic, bite-size workouts seem more feasible than a US$100-an-hour standing appointment across town.

    What is not included with FitStar, however, is motivation. Several fitness experts I talked to said that despite the success stories trumpeted on the back of fitness DVDs and on the FitStar blog, many people lack the motivation to achieve significant results from working out alone with an app or video.

    "It's easy to break an appointment with your TV, easy to break an appointment with your iPad," said Michael Boyle, who trains professional athletes and others at a Boston-area strength and conditioning centre and runs the blog

    I skipped my workouts when I went on holiday. Long-term habits are hard to change, with or without technology - we know that more than a third of people abandon their fitness trackers after just a few months.

    But personal trainers are simply out of reach for many people, either because of the cost or the rigid scheduling. However, Mr Boyle said that small group classes have proved to be a popular alternative to both one-on-one training and at-home workouts. The classes combine social encouragement with the motivation of an appointment, as well as at least some financial penalty for skipping a workout.

    So while FitStar might seem like the right solution to keep the endorphins high and the waistline shrinking, the real test will not be one month - it will be two, three or four. Maybe by then, I will have dumped both the trainer and the training app for a class at SoulCycle, the popular spinning studio, instead. Anything but the couch.