Posted on January 14, 2022 by Harry Edwards

A recent BBC article posed the question “can fitness apps be as effective as a personal trainer?” In this article there was a discussion on the use of new fitness apps over face-to-face 1-to-1 personal training with a human instructor. Now of course I believe that personal trainers are more effective than existing fitness apps, and that the role of human personal trainers is going to become increasingly important in our modern world. However, I do think that there can be a balance or an alliance between personal training and fitness apps. This blog discusses the pros and cons of both and seeks to provide you with information for you to form your own opinions.

The Cost of Personal Training

The article is quick to criticise the price for personal training. Fitness Apps start anywhere from being free to around £20 a month. Whereas prices for personal training sessions can range from prices as low as £15 per hour to hundreds of pounds per hour depending on the expertise of the trainer in question and the location of the gym. As such, we can understand why this is often a deciding factor for people. In any given city there are going to be options as to how much or how little you want to invest into personal training sessions, but admittedly it is a significant additional cost.

When you go to a restaurant to eat, there are a number of deciding factors that make you pick that restaurant. Location, options on the menu, customer reviews and other recommendations, cost, service and overall experience. This is not too dissimilar to people choosing and paying for personal training! At the end of the day, you pick it based on what works best for you.

Algorithms and Averages

For most fitness apps, an algorithm receives this data and uses it to inform the exercise programmes it recommends to people, working out what their average user would want or need. However, at risk of sounding cliché, fitness is not a “one size fits all” endeavour. In fact, people who on paper could appear very similar, can have entirely different metabolic needs, muscular strength, cardiovascular ability and athletic weaknesses. Even if the app was receiving data from billions of people, it is inescapable that the design of individual’s workouts, even if modulated by factors like age, weight, experience, etc, is defined by averages. The app can only estimate what any individual’s ability is going to be based on the collective information from its other users.

A personal trainer will draw on their experiences of other “similar” clients, however the difference is that the personal trainer is directly confronted with the individual, their wants, needs and ability, and must create a programme specific to those factors. Additionally, a good PT will regularly record statistics about their clients, measuring their personal bests, their weight, or other measures of health and fitness across time to track their specific progress. One could argue that the app might initially get closer to an estimation of what an individual needs, but only through direct observation of the individual can their needs be met and their limits pushed. This is something current apps cannot achieve alone, whilst personal trainers can.

Form and Safety

One major problem with fitness apps is that there is no way to ensure that an individual is exercising with correct form. This could lead to all sorts of debilitating injuries, especially lower back pain which people are much more susceptible to due to sedentary lifestyles and office jobs.

A personal trainer is on hand to correct any mistakes a client makes and, if a client has biomechanical reasons for not being suited to a particular exercise, they can replace it with variations that don’t put the same stresses on their body.

A Human Touch

At the risk of sounding a bit airy fairy, there is something to be said for having an authentic interaction with another person when doing anything in life. The article briefly refers to sport and fitness psychologist Anthony Papathomas who argues that apps cannot truly account for the complexities and sensitivities of human beings. An app can only receive data feedback and give you different pop-ups, while a human can actually empathise with you on a level not currently possible from a machine.

Personal Trainers and Fitness Apps – An Unlikely Alliance?

Despite my obvious frustration with some of the claims of this article, I think personal trainers and fitness apps could supplement one another. They both fill different niches in the fitness market; some people are always going to feel uncomfortable in a gym setting or in 1-to-1’s with a trainer, others need interpersonal motivation and individualised programmes. In this way, they cater to different needs. On the other side of the coin, some fitness apps can act as fantastic tools to support the role of personal trainers. Apps like Strava and MyFitnessPal offer fantastic analytics for individuals to record their progress and to keep trainers in the loop on where they’re at. I personally use apps like these to receive workouts from my coaches and record my progress, allowing me to feel a sense of progression and giving my coaches the information to optimally programme my future exercises. As more and more industries become automated, I think the role of real humans in industries related to well-being is going to be increasingly important. A human in the coming decades may not be better than machines or computers at running the stock market, performing open heart surgery or building cars, but they’ll be ever more important in therapy, childcare, entertainment and the fitness industry. Personal trainers may have to adjust with the times and integrate new technologies into the service they provide but there is no question, fitness apps are not going to be more effective than personal trainers any time soon. If you want to experience the benefit of personal training, check out the link here and get started today!