Fitness Apps: The good, the bad and the ugly

running

LiveScience recently featured an interesting article about fitness apps which may be encouraging risk taking. They describe how Ms Smith, a cyclist in New York, was using the fitness app, Strava, to track her route to and from work. After returning home one day she noticed that she was only 6 seconds away from beating the “top time” that another user had set for that same journey. On her next journey home she cycled harder than ever to beat that time. Later, she began thinking about how this app had encouraged her to be reckless on her commute from work, simply because it displayed a record to beat. Although she did not come to harm, this could have potentially increased Ms Smith’s chances of being involved in an accident due to her preoccupation with beating the “record time”.

Fitness apps: The Good

There are many fitness apps which aim to record your progress and motivate you to improve your time or distance whether this is for running, cycling, skating etc. I personally use the RunKeeper app when I run with my iPhone, alternatively I use my Garmin Forerunner watch which also records my GPS location/route, my time, average time, mileage etc.

These apps are a great resource for those who keep fit regularly and those who are just starting out. Some apps even offer the option to create fitness plans that are tailored to the individual user based upon their current fitness level and goals. As some of you already know, I am running the Great North Run this year. In addition to their training website, the organisers offer an app which creates a weekly training schedule over a prolonged period to help runners gradually and safely increase their fitness in the lead up to the event. In this scenario I think the apps can be a very valuable resource. Whereas some runners may have typically ran with little or no guidance, the app ensures that they have a detailed, sensible plan readily available. The ability to track and record their progress will help to motivate runners to stick to the training programme. In addition, the app asks users to record how they felt during each training session, e.g., whether the user found the workout too difficult – the app then adjusts the training schedule to suit. Clearly this is not a replacement for a personal trainer or coach, but it still offers a helpful resource.

Therefore, although LiveScience raises some valid and interesting points, I also wanted to illustrate that these apps can have many positive features. For me, the answer lies in the design of the app.

The Bad and The Ugly

LiveScience focused on apps which are encouraging risk taking through competition. They suggest that the competition element may lead users to increase their chance of an accident due to risk taking behaviour. Recently, the family of William Flint, attempted to sue Strava after William suffered a fatal crash whilst trying to beat a downhill cycling time record. The case has recently been dismissed. Strava has also been linked to the death of a 71 year old man who was hit by a cyclist who was allegedly attempting to beat the app’s record time.

The competition element may pose another risk and is a feature that possibly should be reconsidered, or at least approached with caution, by developers. I feel that competing against others – whilst fun – may not be a particularly helpful feature. In terms of fitness, it is more beneficial for users to be aiming to better their personal best rather than that of other users who may be at a much more advanced level of fitness. Therefore, in addition to the potential for accidents due to reckless behaviour, e.g., being involved in a car crash, there is probably a much greater risk of users incurring injury by exercising beyond their current ability, e.g., strains, stress fractures etc.

The Pros and Cons

I personally feel that fitness apps are a valuable resource when used correctly. Problems occur when apps are poorly designed and/or poorly utilised by the user.

Pros:

  • Convenient and easily accessible
  • Often free or low cost
  • Encourages those keeping fit to accurately monitor their progress
  • Ability to accurately track route using GPS – allowing the user to monitor their distance and speed as they progress without additional cost of a dedicated device
  • Ability to create a training plan, could help prevent users from overtraining
  • May encourage a sense of community amongst other users (i.e., for apps which integrate a social networking element)

Cons:

  • Some apps encourage competition which may lead to injury
  • Some users may regard apps as an alternative to a sports therapist, personal trainer or coach but apps can not advise on many issues, for example running style, finding the correct footwear/equipment etc.
  • Apps may be poorly designed and not necessarily based on a solid foundation of knowledge regarding fitness and training

The Conclusion

Well designed fitness apps can be a beneficial resource if the user has the correct approach to using them, by this I mean that users must respect what apps can and cannot offer. My advice for anyone starting off on any training programme would be:

  • See a sports therapist, coach, GP and/or physio prior to starting a fitness programme, and continue to do so throughout your training. Professional advice cannot be replaced by apps or advice from non-professional sources. Your personal trainer/coach will be able to devise a training programme that is suitable for your current level of fitness and your fitness goals – they will also be able to amend this accordingly based upon your progress.
  • Ensure you have the correct equipment, e.g., if you are starting to run ensure that you see a professional to find out which footwear that is suited to your body and running style. Remember to have this equipment regularly checked and replaced as appropriate.
  • Do not regard the app as an alternative to professional advice.
  • Do not view it as a competition. Aim to beat your personal best times, through solid and sensible training, rather than recklessly aiming to beat the times of others. If possible, do not get caught up in comparing your times with others – you do not know their training background or their current level of fitness.
  • Aim to use the app as a complement to your existing training programme and use it as a monitoring tool to keep track of your progress.

As with many digital innovations, often the problem does not lie with the technology but rather how it is used. We must not fall into the trap of seeing technology as a replacement but rather as a complement to the other resources available to us.

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7 responses to “Fitness Apps: The good, the bad and the ugly

  1. Nowadays it’s easy to get fit with these apps. I also use some from time to time for my training. As you mentioned there is always a risk when people go for competition.

  2. I thought you were going to talk about how she is publicly telling people where to find her all the time. On many of those apps, people know your routes, your routines, and how long it takes you to get from one point to another. A stalker’s paradise. Or, they could just go rob your home while you’re out.

    • Very good point Amethyst, I actually kept that little bit of info aside as it makes up part of today’s blog post 😉 You are absolutely right, it is very risky to be sharing such explicit information about your schedule and your location (often even including a map to your house! eek!).

  3. I am not much into fitness, but the story about trying to beat a record, reminded me of, when a pizza house promised to deliver in a certain amount of time. This caused delivery personnel to put their lives and that of others at risk in trying to make good on that promise. Technology these days is too much!!

  4. Very interesting post Dawn. As I am into health and fitness I am aware a few of these apps.

    I did find the stats about the competition element interesting but… hmmmm but as an athlete maybe with or without an app many of those folks would compete in a different way like against the guy at works time via a watch.

    Not sure why so many folks down the competition element of EVERYTHING seeing as most of us compete for our jobs and promotions and our schooling and … well lots of things in life.

    Loved the post and will look into some of those apps I haven’t heard of yet.

  5. I’m not using any fitness apps at the moment, but I like the idea of them. I think it’s great to track your fitness or use one to keep yourself motivated. I do not think they are a replacement for a personal trainer or an expert. I agree with Amethyst. If they are tracking your location, I don’t need one.

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