The use of technology to support fitness goals really isn’t anything new. Today’s fitness technology trends reflect decades’ worth of evolution, from black and white television programs to VHS tapes to wearables to apps to virtual reality.
Anyone who was around when Dwight Eisenhower was president may remember the stone age of using technology to share exercise routines and nutrition hints when Jack LaLanne’s television exercise show became a hit in the 1950s. He was doing jumping jacks and lifting weights on TV long before Richard Simmons and Jane Fonda made fitness accessible to the masses with their videos. Back then, special aerobic shoes and leg warmers were the new trends. Runners were called joggers, and Jazzercize was the forerunner of Zumba.
Today, fitness trends seem to change by the day and so does the technology that helps people track steps, miles, calories, hydration, sleep, food choices, weight, and just about anything but their dog’s BMI.
Technology, both for the delivery of the experience and production of it, has made virtual workouts more available to people who cannot, or do not want to, work out in a group environment. The days of popping the tape into the TV have given way to easily accessible streaming workouts available anytime and anywhere. Early cumbersome “fitness watches” have moved toward high-tech “wearables” that communicate through smartphones to keep users updated on personal fitness statistics and let them join virtual fitness communities.
Opinions vary widely about the value of fitness technology. For some people, apps and wearables provide much needed accountability to help them start moving and keep moving. For others, however, these technology tools are nothing more than trendy props.
Lauren Truslow, owner of two Barre3 studios in the Midlands, says that wearables can have a place in fitness regimens. All of her instructors wear Apple Watches to track their minutes of fitness and calories. However, Lauren cautions, “All these wearables are not always super accurate, and you should exercise because it makes you healthy and feel good.”
Peggy Binette falls into the camp of believers when it comes to fitness wearables and apps. Peggy claims she has never been one to diet or exercise but this past spring made a decision to become healthier and stronger. She started using her Apple Watch and MyFitnessPal app to provide personal accountability that led to increased motivation.
“The first step with the app was to track what I ate and to stick to 1,200 to 1,500 calories daily. That was eye opening and led to better and more knowledgeable decisions,” Peggy says. “I’m down 35 pounds and two dress sizes, I walk or jog one to three miles a day, and I am definitely healthier and stronger.”
She has found the MyFitnessPal’s articles and recipes very helpful, along with the ability to share her progress with others. “My niece sends me notes of encouragement when she sees that I have had a great workout. I know that my use of this app daily is the key to my living a more intentional, happier, and healthier life.”
Adrienne Fairwell is a fitness instructor at MUV in Irmo, a side gig she’s had for 18 years in addition to her busy job as assistant general manager at South Carolina ETV and role as wife and mother of two. She uses Apple and Fitbit wearable technology to help her clients with both personal and group training. Adrienne has found the technology can help clients hold themselves accountable for the effort and the work.
“I use these technologies as motivators. When an individual is able to view their progress or effort, or lack thereof, given the right fitness tools, clients can be extremely successful in meeting fitness and health goals,” Adrienne says. “It frees me up as the trainer to push the workout and drive home the health and wellness relationship. The technology also allows me to worry less about effort and more about the commitment to the benefits of fitness.”
Adrienne’s experiences echo the belief that technology devices and apps can help clients be competitive with themselves, even if they aren’t necessarily competing with others. “When a client can see his or her numbers decreasing and increasing in the appropriate categories, they become far more competitive against themselves. The technology can help shape this much more than the trainer can.”
For someone wanting to give fitness tracking a try, free apps that come already installed on smartphones may be the easiest and least expensive place to start.
The iPhone Health app and the Android Google Fit app come preinstalled on today’s most widely used smartphones. They are user-friendly and can track daily activity such as steps, various types of exercise, mindfulness and breathing, nutrition habits, and sleep patterns. GPS and built-in sensors on the phones track and maintain baseline activity. Hundreds of third-party apps can complement these Apple and Android apps to give users even more detailed information about their health habits that the smartphones alone cannot capture.
Runkeeper, Runtastic, and Strava are three of the more popular running apps that track race training schedules, running routes, real time workouts, and running team activity. For cyclists, Strava and Map My Ride are frequently recommended apps for riders who want a way to track routes, speed, distance, and heart rate.
For people wanting to use a wristband fitness tracker, the Apple Watch and Android Wear Watch are two of the most widely used wearable fitness smartwatches because they are so closely aligned with their respective manufacturers’ smartphones. Other popular wearable trackers have apps that work with Apple and Android smartphones including Fitbit and Garmin products.
Many gyms offer clients use of a dedicated heart rate monitor to let them watch their progress in real time during a class. The MyZone belt is widely used because of its comprehensive tracking. At Jamie Scott Fitness, clients have the option to use the MyZone monitor during class. The belt, worn around the chest, connects by WiFi to the studio’s television monitors. Both the trainers and clients can track progress during a class and over a period of days, weeks, and months.
Jamie says, “MyZone helps track everything from heart rate training to step counting to thermal body imaging.” Clients can also wear the MyZone belt away from the studio to track activity and sync it with the MyZone app on their Apple Watch, Android Wear Watch, or Samsung Galaxy Watch.
In today’s fitness world, traditional equipment such as stationary bicycles and treadmills are also tapped into technology. As well, apps and virtual reality have blurred the lines between workout equipment at the gym, group fitness experiences, and equipment that can be used at home.
At Anytime Fitness on Devine Street, clients can use the gym’s app that sends customized workouts and gives trainers feedback on when those workouts have been completed. “Our app will allow the user to use their own wearable device like a heart rate monitor or step tracker to input and log data,” says Drew Mobley, owner of Anytime Fitness. “We also have Peloton bikes with live and on demand spin classes that allow the user to personalize their routine based on time, music, and difficulty and to log all their workout data.”
The Peloton is arguably the most popular virtual alternative to group cycle classes. It is a high-end stationary bike sporting a 22-inch WiFi enabled touch screen that streams live and on-demand classes through a monthly subscription service. Riders compete with other participants in the room or virtually and get a strenuous cardio workout in the process.
Gyms and studios like Barre 3 are increasingly offering streaming and online classes. Lauren says, “All of our members get access to online classes, and we have hundreds to choose from. If you can’t make it to the studio one day then you can pop in online and do a class in your living room.”
If tracking calories is a top fitness priority, then food tracking apps such as MyFitnessPal, LoseIt, and MyPlate are easy free options for tracking weight, documenting food consumption, and calculating a recommended daily calorie intake. Food diaries and the ability to sync with most wearable devices are also features that attract users to the variety of food tracking apps on the market.
While the idea of using technology to unplug and relax for yoga or meditation may seem somewhat counterintuitive, apps can also help with these types of fitness routines. Anne Miller, who owns the Rosewood Avenue yoga studio The Rooted Community, says multiple apps are available for meditation, yoga practice, and mindfulness practice. “OMFIT is one that you can customize with music and yoga style. The Headspace app is meditation that you can set for a specific time of day so that you can pause to meditate or have some intentional quiet time.”
When deciding on a fitness tracker, app, or equipment, several considerations can influence buying decisions:
1. Fitness goal. Apps, equipment, and wearables are available for every fitness level, and the technology changes frequently. Some apps and wearables can do it all — track exercise of all types, sleep, calories, heart rate, weight — as well as serve as a watch and personal computer on the user’s arm. On the other end of the spectrum, hundreds of single feature apps and basic wearables provide options from which to choose.
2. Expense. Many basic fitness apps are free. Starting out with the free app and getting familiar with its features can help make informed decisions later about upgrading to a more robust version of the app that can be accessed with a subscription fee. As well, prices for wearable trackers can run from less than $100 to more than $1,000.
3. Battery life. Some fitness trackers have batteries that last months, like the Garmin Vivofit 3. Others, especially feature-rich models, last just hours. Some have internal batteries, while others require electric chargers.
4. Compatibility. Apps and fitness equipment are becoming increasingly compatible with all the major operating systems on smartphones and computers, including Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS, but it is always wise to confirm compatibility before making a purchase.