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There are over 100,000 different health apps available today, and fitness is one of the top two downloaded categories (nutrition is the other). So, how do you find one that’s right for you?
It helps to understand the main types. Many are sophisticated activity trackers, which are great if you’re consistently exercising. Others focus on weight loss, running, or other specific goals. And then there’s a trainer-in-a-pocket type, which may be your best gym alternative—but they aren’t all created equal.
At the University of Florida, the first study of its kind rated 30 popular free apps. “We were specifically interested in those apps that can be used by people who don’t really know how to exercise and who would like to have an app just tell them what they should be doing,” says François Modave, PhD, lead author of the study.
Using guidelines from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), apps were tested for three essential types of movement: heart-pumping cardio for stamina and endurance; strength training of all the major muscle groups; and stretching to improve flexibility. Only one—Sworkit (coined from “simply work it”)—met the majority of the scientific requirements, and the runners-up were not close.
“Find an app you actually use,” suggests Greg Coleman, an Air Force veteran, ACSM-certified trainer, and cocreator of Sworkit. “It may not be the most complex one,” he adds. For a list of features to look for, see the Fitness App Checklist.
For a sense of different app options, here are some popular and new ones:
Set a time, from 5 to 60 minutes, and do a preset routine or customize your own from a list of over 200 exercises. (Yes, even 5 minutes can give you a boost.) Think of it as a playlist of 30-second exercise videos, including cardio, strength, flexibility, and yoga, with almost infinite variations. For example, if you’re a bit germophobic in a hotel room, customize a workout without getting down on the floor. The paid version of Sworkit includes personalized advice from a human in “Ask the Trainer,” and for little ones, there’s Sworkit Kids.
This is a popular family of apps that track nutrition, calories burned, duration, and intensity of various physical activities, including walking and running. Some features are also available on the site.
Compete with runners around the world, in races ranging from 1 mile to a full marathon. The app matches runners, from beginners to advanced, helps you progress, and acknowledges personal achievements.
WOD Deck of Cards
One of many WOD (Workout of the Day) apps inspired by CrossFit, this recent one makes it easy to create custom workouts, track them, and share results on social media.
Argus by Azumio
An all-around tracking app, Argus requires no wearables for instant heart-rate readings, using the phone’s flash, and for sleep tracking.
A popular weight-loss app with food, fitness, and weight tracking, syncing with scales and exercise programs, and its own social network.
To pep up workouts, Spotify offers free music, mixed especially for running or other fitness activities.
Like an Uber for fitness, FitSpot lets you order up an almost instant, in-person workout with a vetted, certified personal trainer, or schedule one later, just for you or with one or two of your friends. Started in Los Angeles, FitSpot is branching out through Southern California and then to New York and Las Vegas.
Fitness App Checklist
If you have a favorite wearable, look on the manufacturer’s site for apps that sync with it. If you only run, strength train, practice yoga, or do another specialized type of activity, consider an app that will help you fill the gaps for a balanced fitness regimen.
For a good overall workout, these are key qualities to look for:
- Cardio: Moves that get your heart pumping.
- Strength: Exercises that challenge muscles from head to toe.
- Flexibility: Stretching to smooth out kinks and keep you supple and relaxed.
- Style: Exercise you enjoy, whether it’s yoga or CrossFit.
- Science: Exercises and routines designed by trained fitness professionals.
- Simplicity: Demonstrations of exercises and other app features that are clear and easy to follow.
- Syncing: The ability to sync with online music sources and wearables, if these are important to you.
- The fun factor: If you like an app, you’re more likely to use it, so it pays to take
time and find what’s right for you.