Can you get in shape with iPhone fitness apps?

5th Feb 2010 | 13:00

Can you get in shape with iPhone fitness apps?

Our challenge: get fit with £10-worth of iPhone apps

Testing the best iPhone fitness apps

Technology's great, but it's part of the reason waistlines are expanding. These days, many people do little physical work and rely on cars rather than their legs for getting around.

As a MacFormat magazine and TechRadar freelance writer, I'm immersed in technology daily, but my morning commute only involves going upstairs to my office. Therefore, unless I specifically make an effort to exercise, pounds (or kilos, metric fans) gradually creep on, even if I'm not shoving a chocolate bar in my face every night.

During 2009, exercise took a back seat, and I noticed myself becoming unfit. So I decided to do something about it – with the help of technology. For this article, I wanted to see if Apple's iPhone could help me get fitter rather than fatter.

Instead of spending time playing iPhone games, I'd spend a few weeks trying out exercise apps. Since the iPhone's expensive, the decision was made to restrict my app budget to a crisp (well, digital) tenner on the App Store – an 'impulse purchase' sum most people would be happy to spend to get in shape.

After researching options on the App Store, I decided on five apps – four exercise aids and one weight tracker.

The most expensive, at £5.99, was RunKeeper Pro, a GPS tracker for walking, jogging and running. Using the magic of technology, it logs where you go and integrates readings and progress with an online account.

At 59p each, GymFu apps CrunchFu, PushupFu and SquatFu were the cheapest. They're designed to train you over a couple of months to complete a number of 'reps' in a single session – 200 crunches, 100 push-ups and 200 squats, respectively. For fitness gurus, that might seem easy, but my arms tried to make a break for it on hearing the number '100' followed by the word 'pushups'.

GymFu

The weight tracker, Weightbot, is a £1.19 app with a fun, noisy interface, meaning even if pounds aren't shed, you won't be upset inputting your weight.

Although Weightbot initially proved the most fun app to tinker with, RunKeeper and the GymFu apps were engaging enough to get me excited about the prospect of using them for serious exercise.

WeightBot

The GymFu apps in particular seem designed for newbies, providing information about how to do good crunches, push-ups and squats. Along with mentioning warm-ups and stretches, they note you should take 48-hour breaks between training sessions, to give your body time to recover.

My plan therefore evolved to working with GymFu apps on alternate days and using RunKeeper in-between.

My iPhone fitness exercise regime

My first attempt with RunKeeper involved several 'wow' moments. The app got a GPS fix in seconds and I scooted off towards the local park. Along the way, the app periodically barked my time and pace, and I could at any point see via the well-designed display how I was doing.

RunKeeper map

On returning home, the run was sent to the RunKeeper website, and on logging in, it was possible to see my route within a Google Maps box, how elevation affected my speed, and how many calories I'd used. I could also add my wife – a long-time RunKeeper user – to my 'street team'. For the first time in a year, things were looking up for my sagging paunch.

The following day with GymFu wasn't so smooth, however. I'd tested CrunchFu before, but not the other apps, and it was a while before I figured out how to best hold the iPhone so the apps wouldn't keep barking "HALF!" at me for incomplete reps.

In the end, having the iPhone in my pocket for SquatFu worked well, and holding my iPhone at a slight angle on my thumbs during crunches worked better than having it at my chest.

Over the following week, my routine continued – with the occasional slip – and it was during this time that RunKeeper's one failing became apparent. Although it provides weekly and monthly totals (activities, distance, time, calories), it's not obvious how you're progressing if you do the same route and distance every day.

By comparison, after a few days GymFu's apps graph your reps from training and 'battles', which come via Twitter from the GymFu 'Fubot' and, very sporadically, real humans across the globe. (You can challenge others by score or max reps, but I found in practice few battle requests were answered.) Having a graph detailing progress was really encouraging and definitely spurred me on.

GymFu graph

RunKeeper fell further by the wayside as the weather dramatically deteriorated, but this simply demonstrated to me the importance of having a set of apps that enable inside and outside exercise. And my effort in GymFu increased, even if my overall exercise level dropped.

Work in progress

A few weeks have passed since I started my experiment, and Weightbot stubbornly refuses to say I'm at my target weight – in fact, it doesn't think I've lost more than a rounding error.

But before this experiment is chalked up as a failure and I start eating too many Jaffa Cakes again, it should be noted that I'm exercising regularly for the first time in nearly a year – and that's mostly down to the iPhone apps.

Admittedly, I'm a sucker for graphs and games, and seeing a downward trend in GymFu or an upward trend in Weightbot gets me doubly motivated to reverse them. Surprisingly, GymFu's Twitter challenges also helps, since my brain doesn't seem to realise that they're (mostly) automated.

I've noticed changes in my basic fitness too. GymFu's founders reckon that 40% of people "double their reps", and I can already comfortably do twice as many push-ups and squats as when I first started. Granted, hitting the final GymFu targets is a long way off, but now I'm confident I'll eventually get there.

GymFu

And although RunKeeper isn't in the mix as much as I'd like (due to ongoing 'wuss out of running because of the rain' syndrome), I now use it to track dog walks rather than just runs, and challenge myself to beat my walking times – much to my dog's annoyance, it seems.

So while I'm not going to be running the London Marathon any time soon or joining an athletics team, I have, for a cost that's less than a week's membership at my local gym, got started on the path to better fitness.

And what's more, I still have the princely sum of £1.05 left over to spend on a Mars Bar. Er, protein bar. To spend on a protein bar…

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First published in MacFormat Issue 216

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