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Originally published February 13, 2015 at 3:57 PM | Page modified February 13, 2015 at 7:24 PM

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Test of strength: fitness apps versus personal trainers

Fitness apps are a low-cost, convenient way of maintaining an exercise regimen. But how do they stack up against using a personal trainer and a highly customized program?


The New York Times

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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 January on a personal-fitness challenge, seeing which provided a better workout: a real personal trainer or a personal-training app. And 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 $5 a month or $30 a year.

Kiqplan is a workout plan sold in stores as a $20 gift card that unlocks a 12-week workout. The app includes nutrition coaching, integration with activity trackers and rewards for hitting certain milestones.

And Hot5 has a collection of high-intensity five-minute workouts that you combine into longer sessions, with nice videos that feature a variety of trainers. It’s $3 a month, or $22 a year.

But the best option I found was FitStar, a free personal-trainer app. For $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 customized 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 programs. 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. And 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. And the app uses the anonymous data collected from all their users to adjust individual programs for each user.

“It’s not unlike video games where you have matchmaking systems for online play, and they can pair you up with opponents at your level,” said Mike Maser, a co-founder and the chief executive of FitStar.

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

The app doesn’t require weights or other equipment, which makes it easy to use anywhere. It integrates with MyFitnessPal, which is my favorite app for tracking calorie intake.

I noticed FitStar’s progression of the workouts over the course of the month. One downside, though, is that you can’t opt to change your fitness level after you start the program to make your workouts significantly harder or easier.

If the exercises are not intense enough, you can only tell the app that the exercises were too easy, and the app slowly increases the intensity the next time.

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.

FitStar didn’t push me as far or as fast as a personal trainer. If you were starting from scratch and trying to get into shape with only FitStar, the results might be slow in coming.

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 $100-an-hour standing appointment across town.

What is not included with FitStar, however, is motivation.

“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 center and runs the blog StrengthCoach.com.

I skipped my workouts when I went on vacation. And 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, and Boyle said small-group classes have proved to be a popular alternative to both one-on-one training and at-home workouts.



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