Can fitness apps be as effective as a personal trainer?

As we start 2022, lots of us will be resuming the battle to lose weight and get fit. A wealth of high-tech fitness apps are now available to help, but are they anywhere near as good as hiring a human personal trainer?

Four years ago, Jenny Wiener was in a fitness slump.

She wanted to improve her physical and mental health, but her workouts lacked intensity without a proper training programme to follow.

When she went to the gym she says she often chose “easy” options, like jogging on a treadmill, to avoid more daunting exercises.

A personal trainer who might push her was out of the question because of the high cost – typically prices start from £30 an hour.

Ms Wiener, 32, who works as an events manager in St Albans, then discovered fitness app Freeletics.

To use the app you first input information about your previous training experiences and preferences, and goals. A virtual coach then used that information to suggest a personalised training regime.

At the end of each workout, the Freeletics app then asks Ms Wiener to provide feedback about its suitability and difficulty. The app’s artificial intelligence (AI) software system then uses her answers – plus those from its other 53 million users around the world – to adjust future training sessions.

“The AI aspect is one of the main things that got me interested,” says Ms Wiener. “I was going to the gym every day before, but seeing zero results.

“When I found Freeletics, I was like ‘OMG it’s a PT [personal trainer] in my pocket, my gym buddy’.”

She adds that she finds the workouts exciting, because no two are ever the same. And that, as a result, the app has helped her to lose four-stone.

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Freeletics’ digital personal trainer app, called ‘The Coach’, costs from £1.78 a week. The firm’s chief product and technology officer, Kornelius Brunner, says it “gets smarter and better” as users give it more and more feedback.

Can an app motivate you to keep going to the gym as much as a human personal trainer?
However, sports and fitness psychologist, Anthony Papathomas, says that such apps are no substitute for human personal trainers.

“With an interpersonal relationship you are going to get that increased sensitivity to personal needs,” says the senior lecturer at Loughborough University’s National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine.

“If you don’t fancy the session, or if you’re not in a mood, which is often the case, particularly in exercise behaviour change,” he says. “Then I’m not sure the kind of alert [you get] on your phone, necessarily takes into consideration that we are human beings with competing interests outside of our health and fitness.”

Whereas, Mr Papathomas points out a “human being” trainer is probably more likely to empathise “and exercise is only sustainable if we enjoy it.”

Brighton-based marketing consultant, Tom Bourlet, says he used to love exercising, but lost motivation after entering into a relationship.

Then in January of this year, he and his partner received a wedding invitation, and both were determined to lose a set amount of weight to get in shape for the big day.

He discovered app FitnessAI, which uses a similar approach to Freeletics – mining its users’ data to improve and personalise all their workouts.

“I often utilise data in my work, and find it incredibly useful to ensure you’re making continuous progress, therefore the entire concept appealed to me,” says Mr Bourlet.

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