Forget fitness trackers: these alternative digital solutions are helping people get in shape

If getting in shape is your new year’s resolution, perhaps you’ve already made it to the gym. But if you’re like the rest of us, you could probably use some extra motivation and perhaps you’ll find that little extra push online or through your mobile device.

While there are plenty of options on the market for fitness devices, like the popular Fitbit currently at the centre of a lawsuit, it’s easy to forget that there are also options that don’t require you to be strapped in all day. For many people on the road to getting fit, it’s about a lot more than just counting steps or active minutes.

Fitocracy, Nerd Fitness and Fitness Buddy are just three of the many digital solutions out there promising “a better way to get healthy” or “the best shape of your life.” Fitness services that either connect you with a like-minded community or experts in health and fitness are available both as apps and as websites. Some come with a monthly fee or one-time fee, while others are completely free for users.

For some people, these communities and apps are just the push they need to get in shape.

A Facebook for fitness

PumpUp is a mobile app developed by two University of Waterloo graduates boasting more than two million members in 152 countries. It allows users to create profiles outlining their fitness goals, document their progress by posting photos and status updates and, perhaps most important, interact with and receive encouragement or advice from the community’s membership. Users can even find meal plans, recipes and workouts curated by community members.

Anna, an aerospace engineering student from Montreal, is one of those members. Before joining PumpUp in January 2015, she was only making incremental progress when it came to getting in shape. Though she kept junk food to a minimum, her meal portions were huge and loaded with carbohydrates and she didn’t exercise at all. It wasn’t until she joined PumpUp that her complete lifestyle overhaul began.

[Anna, before and after. photo:PumpUp.com]

“I have accomplished so many things thanks to PumpUp. Now, I hit the gym five times a week. It’s something I would have never done before. I am also more self-confident,” she shared on PumpUp.com as one of their success stories.

Since downloading the app a year ago she has lost 22 lbs. with a balanced diet that incorporates protein, fruits and vegetables and smaller amounts of fat and carbs. Now she plans all her meals for the week and along with working out, left the sweet temptations of her serving job at a restaurant.

“PumpUp is a great source of motivation and every night before sleeping, I scroll through other members’ pictures because I really love learning food ideas, seeing transformations and being inspired by their training,” she said, and she may be on to something.

The social strategies that PumpUp and other fitness communities employ to help you reach your fitness goals – mastery experiences, vicarious experiences, validation and social support – have all been scientifically proven in the fitness psychology field to be effective at helping people engage in physical activity.

“I would say the strategies being used in these types of forums are definitely in line with the evidence-based strategies we know are effective in exercise psychology,” says Kelly Arbour-Nicitopoulos, an assistant professor in the Health and Exercise Psychology Unit on the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education at the University of Toronto.

“For example, showing off your success by posting photos is a way of showing mastery experiences and if you can post to others, those people can have vicarious experiences, which are both strategies that are really important for increasing people’s self-efficacy.”

[Anna’s meals for the week. photo:PumpUp.com]

Mobile motivation

Scientists know that the stronger your self-efficacy, the more you believe in your own ability to complete tasks and achieve goals. The creators of PumpUp figured that out too. After listening to their users, they discovered that the original app – a customized a fitness routine set to your goals and lifestyle – wasn’t what their users needed.

“If you’re not motivated, it doesn’t matter if you have a fitness routine calibrated to your lifestyle – you’re never going to use it,” says Phil Jacobson, PumpUp’s president and co-founder.

So the original customized fitness routine became a tool within the app, but PumpUp became more about the community of users supporting each other with positive encouragement and ideas that worked for them.

“The biggest challenge when it comes to getting active and staying active is the motivational side of things, so what PumpUp gives you is a support network in your pocket 24/7,” says Jacobson.

But if you’re Colin Manson, you need support that’s a little more hands-on. The 43-year-old Toronto police officer normally goes to the gym three to five times a week, but he’d recently hit a plateau in his workout and was gifted a little Christmas money that he plans to spend on a personal trainer. Problem is, finding a good personal trainer usually takes a lot of research with trial and error and he just doesn’t have that kind of time.

“Normally I would just [search online for] ‘Personal Trainer’ but then you get a list of no-names,” says Manson.

Matchmaking for your muscles

Instead, a Facebook ad took him to FHmatch.com. A bit like a fitness Airbnb service, consumers can create free profiles  outlining their fitness goals, while fitness professionals create free profiles outlining their fitness credentials and experience. Then, the two parties can chat with each other, book a session and rate their experience of one another all through the website.

“Profile-wise, FHMatch has an option where you can put blurbs in there about yourself  and that’s what I like because I can read about the trainer before I make a phone call and kind of get a feel of them,” says Manson.

One trainer who uses FHMatch seems to like it for the same reason.

Heather Speer is the proprietor of Myriad Fitness – a personal training business that mostly works with women and older adults either in their home or at Speer’s rented studio space on the east end of Toronto and she says FHMatch helps her reach clients she probably wouldn’t reach normally.

“Some people are on Facebook and their computers all day long, so for them to be able to quickly find you, chat with you and book you is amazing,” she says.

It’s exactly the experience founder David Quenneville was hoping for when he created FHMatch in 2014. A frequent business traveler, his neck was always bothering him, but it was difficult to quickly find the right massage therapist for him in every city he visited and verified that many people had the same problem finding the right personal trainer.

“[Health and fitness] is a very messy marketplace and finding the good professionals is difficult, so you wait for a friend’s recommendation, but maybe after a session you find out what was good for them is not good for you,” says Quenneville.

Meanwhile, the professional health and fitness associations he spoke to verified that they were having difficulty reaching potential clients directly and were constantly at the mercy of word-of-mouth.

“As a trainer you’re always trying to get new customers and spread awareness about what you do, so FHMatch a great, free way to get exposure and connect directly with people who live in the area where I work much faster,” confirms Speer.

But FHMatch only launched in November 2015, so it’s too early to tell what kind of  long-term fitness results users will experience. Manson hopes, however, to book a personal training session through the site very soon.

“Just being a busy guy in this day and age, anything that makes it easier for me to go through profiles and connect directly with the trainer I’m looking for is a definite advantage,” says Manson.

While physical results through FHMatch are too early to confirm, fitness psychologists do know that any way you can make it more convenient for people to workout, the more likely they are to get in shape and stick with it.

“In the past you actually had to go to the gym to arrange an appointment and there were so many more steps involved, but both these forums are taking away some of those barriers,” says Arbour-Nicitopoulos.

“There are high rates of inactivity. We know it’s harder to target people who are not your regular gym-goers. We blame the internet and say too many people are on their computers or sitting in front of the TV. But what I find really interesting, is that social media could be used as a tool to target those individuals we wouldn’t necessarily see at the gym – help them get over their initial fears and potentially increase their confidence.”