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Why your free fitness app might be absolutely useless

Online fitness apps can be a cheap and easy way to burn calories and get in your daily exercise. Most don’t require bulky equipment, and they can be done anywhere, anytime, which makes them a popular option for people who are on the go. Unfortunately, a new study reveals fitness app effectiveness isn’t what most people believe.

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) has physical activity guidelines they recommend based on age, gender, and a number of other factors. This study, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, looked at 30 of the most popular fitness apps on the market and ranked them based on aerobic activity, strength and resistance, and flexibility. The results weren’t as positive as expected.

woman looking at workout app

What the scores showed

Overall, none of the apps were “as safe as they could be” and did not provide users “with the most effective workouts,” according to lead author François Modave, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Health Outcomes and Policy at the University of Florida. One reason for this is because the safety guidelines and warnings about how to perform an exercise were missing on most of the apps, which can make beginners attempting a particular exercise more injury-prone.

Only one app, Sworkit Lite, scored above a 50%. This app offers strength, yoga, pilates, and stretching workouts for people at all levels of fitness. Researchers noted that they hit paywalls with most of the apps they reviewed, which, if a person pays, gave more instruction and safety recommendations but that its creators “at least have to make sure that on the free portion of the app the content is still evidence-based and built on true, expert information.”

man working out app
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Should you stop using fitness apps?

The study is not meant to say these are all bad fitness apps, but that consideration and care should be taken if you decide to engage in a workout. According to the study, “The ACSM recommends that the frequency, intensity, time, and type (FITT) principle should be followed for any exercise program to have health benefits while avoiding injuries and other adverse events,” and that “exercise sessions should include components of safety precautions, warm-up, conditioning including strengthening, and cool-down.”

If you find an app or program you like, but it doesn’t contain guidelines for proper safety, look online for a five-minute warm-up and cool-down routine. This will help you avoid injury and stay loose as you exercise. If you are unsure how to do a particular move, find a video or talk to a fitness instructor before trying it, especially if it involves weights.

How to monitor your fitness progress

If you want to find out if you’re making progress with your exercise regime, use a workout journal so you can track the amount of weight you lifted, how long you worked out, and any other details (like how many miles you ran or your time). Then, you can add weights and/or distance each week so you can see your progression. You can also use a tape measure to track how much body mass you’ve lost or gained on a given body part and a scale if you want to track weight loss.

If you want even more detail, you can also track your body composition to see your muscle-to-fat ratio. Many health clubs have skinfold calipers or electric conductivity testers that can be used to track this.

rowing machine workout

You can still enjoy fitness apps as a way to find new exercises, routines, and programs online. But based on this study, you may want to consider paying a bit per month to access some of their pro features, like safety guidance and fitness trackers.

According to the study, there are an estimated 100,000 health- and fitness-related apps in the Apple App Store and over 165,000 apps when you include the Android’s Google Play store, but choice doesn’t always mean you will see the added benefits. Be sure you track your progress so you know how far you’ve come, and exercise consistently — at least three days a week for 30 minutes — if you want to see health benefits. If you want to stick to any exercise — be it on a fitness app or not — find something you enjoy, and you’ll be more apt to engage regularly.

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