When it comes to fitness, like many endeavors, keeping track of what you plan to do, and when, has been shown to help people meet their goals. Apps can offer assistance in this area, whether they're counting your steps or calories, or charting your weekly strength-training goals.
They also offer something equally important, if less quantitative. “Perhaps the most striking effect is that people who used exercise apps had a lot more self-confidence in their ability to exercise, which itself leads to more exercise,” explains Leonid Litman, a psychology professor at Lander College, a division of Touro College in Queens, N.Y., whose research in this area links use of such apps with lower body mass index (BMI).
What's more, he says, apps help remove barriers to exercise. These can be anything from insufficient motivation to lack of knowledge of how to exercise effectively. “Our research shows that the more barriers people have, the more likely they are to benefit from exercise apps."
If you're searching for a fitness app, know that many are free — though you may be required to look at the ads that come with them. To upgrade to an ad-free app, you usually have to pay a fee.
We love these four exercise apps — which are available for both iOS (iPhone) and Android — because they're easy to use and motivating:
This all-in-one app tracks whatever workout you're doing: walking, biking, running or swimming, as well as gym workouts, stair climbing and strength training — including minutes and calories burned. If you're outdoors, it maps your route (and allows you to save your favorites). You can set goals for time, mileage (for everything from a few blocks to your first 5K or marathon), pace, and/or how many calories you want to burn. Guided training plans and audio coaching can help motivate you, step by step, to reach these goals. And because both are owned by Under Armour, your workouts can automatically link to MyFitnessPal, the popular fitness and diet tracker that's praised for nutrition features that let you drill down on specifics such as how much saturated fat or sodium you're taking in each day. (MapMyFitness, free; ad-free MVP membership, $5.99 per month; MyFitnessPal, free; ad-free MyFitnessPal Premium, $49.99 per year)
While most newer phones allow for free step counting, this app — also free — offers more options, including better accuracy and advanced graphics. It also offers optional audio updates during your workout, and the ability to set your own personal goals, record your progress and follow a tailor-made plan to help you improve your performance over time. Runkeeper, which is owned by sneaker company Asics, also lets you enter virtual races and join running/walking groups, as well as set reminders to get out and run or walk. (Free; $9.99 per month or $39.99 per year for Runkeeper Go premium upgrade)
Tell this app how much time you have to exercise (five, eight, or 10 minutes) and select the body part you want to work (arms, butt, abs or legs), and you'll get simple detailed exercises with videos for you to follow for your height, weight, age and fitness level. (Daily Workouts Fitness Trainer, free; ad-free Daily Workouts Pro, $19.99) There's also a companion Simply Yoga app that uses audio to guide you through beginner through advanced poses for 20, 40 or 60 minutes. (Simply Yoga, free; ad-free Simply Yoga Pro, $14.99)
The SilverSneakers health and fitness programs for adults 65 and up — covered by Medicare and offered at over 16,000 gyms nationwide — are now available in app form. Set workout schedules, find free SilverSneakers workout classes at gyms near you and build four- to 12-week workout programs — all geared to your fitness level (beginner, intermediate and advanced). With strength, flexibility, cardio and walking options, as well as “specialized” workouts for the lower back and hips, the app also provides the option of following a guided audio and/or video lesson while logging your workout activity, allowing you to measure your progress. Finally, the app will remind you — if you want — when it's time to exercise. And you might want to take it up on the offer; studies show that motivational messages within apps significantly up the overall time people report working out. (Free)