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Technology vs. the battle of the bulge

Sure, some of your members are working out to improve their health. And some want to experience that exerciser’s high and sense of satisfaction that come from hitting the gym. But we all know that the factor pushing many people to exercise these days is the desire to lose some weight. In a country where more than 35% of adults are obese—according to figures released in August by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—clubs will want to support those members who want to shed extra pounds. 

Today, technology can be a great help when it comes to weight loss. It may come in the form of a mobile app that offers nutrition and exercise tracking, or a wireless, wearable gadget that monitors movement and energy expenditure, or in a variety of other configurations. Anyone who wants to get into or remain in shape, or lose or maintain their weight, can likely find an easy-to-use and, frequently, low-cost tool to assist them in their efforts.

The problem is, it’s all too easy for folks to be overwhelmed when they’re faced with literally thou- sands of technological options, many of which claim that they can be used effectively at home—without a gym membership and, certainly, without requiring the services of a personal trainer.

Ironically, when faced with so many possibilities, consumers need professional guidance more than ever. That’s where you come in! What better place to obtain some expert assistance than at your club?

Endless options

With the use of smartphones and mobile tablets such as Apple’s iPad exploding, it comes as no surprise that the mobile app market is booming—and with it, the market for fitness and nutrition apps. At the moment, a quick scan of Apple’s App Store reveals that there are more than 25,000 free and priced apps in the health and fitness category. Some of them, like the popular Lose It!, MyFitnessPal, and LiveStrong’s Calorie Tracker, offer automated calorie and nutrition tracking, in versions that are free or cost just a few dollars. Others, like Spark People, offer fitness programs, but add a social component to help motivate users. Still others,

such as the Nike+ GPS app and MapMyRun, use the phone’s GPS capabilities to turn it into a high-tech pedometer that tracks the user’s speed and distance as they walk, run, or bike.

Apps aren’t the only technology tools designed for today’s tech buffs: a growing number of personal fitness devices are also hitting the market. These devices come from fitness stalwarts such as Nike, which is marketing the FuelBand, a $149 bracelet that tracks the wearer’s activity during the day, and syncs it with a Website and a mobile app to monitor progress toward a given goal.

There’s also a new breed of fitness-based, technology-savvy companies, such as FitBit, which offers wireless movement trackers that calculate the calories the user burns each day, as well as the quality and duration of their sleep at night. Even Weight Watchers, which might be thought of as an old-school weight-loss program, is going high-tech. In addition to its mobile app, which has been available for years, the company is now offering the ActiveLink, a wearable activity tracker that syncs with a personalized Website to help members quantify their physical activity and earn points.

The low price of the mobile apps—most are available for no more than $3—makes them financially accessible for most people. They’re used more frequently than the activity monitoring devices, which can cost upwards of $100 and often involve a monthly subscription to an online service. Still, while apps may be the most frequently used tech tool in the weight loss market, most trainers and fitness experts don’t feel that they’re widely used—at least not yet.

“I see more people working out by themselves rather than utilizing any of these apps,” says Cecil Hightower, the director of Ortho Kinetic Training at the TELOS Fitness Center in Dallas. “Using our club as a sample, I’d say that maybe 5% to 15% of our members make use of some sort of nutrition app. But, really, too many people see exercise as something they have to squeeze into their day; anything more that’s put on their plate becomes cumbersome. Unless you’re someone who’s really a Type A personality, you’re likely to stop using it.”

The role for clubs

One of the easiest ways to lighten that burden is to make sure the user is, in fact, using the right tool. That’s where fitness professionals come in.

“People face all sorts of stumbling blocks when they try to use these apps,” observes Richard Cotton, the national director of certification for the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). “Maybe it’s estimating amounts, or entering calories, when they’re trying to use a nutrition app—it can be difficult and time-consuming. Having a trainer who has firsthand experience with these apps can be a valuable resource for clients.”

With the wealth of apps available, chances are good that a trainer can find one that meets an individual client’s unique needs. “The technology really does help,” says Cotton. “It’s interesting, and it introduces novelty. It’s tremendous at providing immediate feedback, which can be very motivating.” 

But could the apps and gadgets prove too motivating and too effective? Could they possibly lull users into believing that they don’t need to join a club or don’t require the services of a personal trainer? If clubs and trainers are doing their jobs well, that shouldn’t be a risk, the experts concur.

“It’s only a risk to trainers who haven’t gone deep enough with their clients to support sustainable behavior change,” responds Cotton. “A trainer has a choice between being just an exercise facilitator, or becoming a facilitator of lifelong behavior change. If you’re only leading your client through the exercises—that’s not a sustainable relationship. The client will eventually learn the exercises on their own. But if the trainer intentionally fosters supportable, sustainable behavior change, that adds tremendous value to the relationship, and they’re less likely to be replaced by a Website or an app.”

Michele Melkerson-Granryd, the general manager of the Body-Business Heath Club & Spa, in Austin, Texas, agrees. “The trainer needs to see (these tech- nologies) as another tool in their tool box, something that pro- vides another opportunity for them to educate and interact with their clients,” she explains. “Instead of my assuming how hard my clients are working, I can give them tools that put the power in their hands. I’m still the guide, and I’m still creating the workout, but they have much more control in terms of achieving the results they want.”

The true value: tracking

Still, like any exercise tool, apps and tech gadgets should be used only when they’re needed, the experts agree. “Any technology can be overused,” says Melkerson-Granryd. “Depending on the kind of person you’re working with, you may not want them tracking the number of steps they take or the calories they burn every day. We should never be held hostage by technology.”

Cotton agrees. “I don’t like to see people becoming dependent upon logging,” he says. “Just because you’re not logging your exercise doesn’t mean that you’re not obtaining the same value from the workout.” 

And, sometimes, the old-fashioned way can work just as well as the high-tech tools.

BodyBusiness runs its Weight Loss Challenge each January. Over a period of 8 to 10 weeks, teams of members compete to see which group can lose the most weight; the score is calculated in percentages to level the playing field. The challenge has been extremely successful, Melkerson-Granryd reports. Members have lost and managed to keep off as much as 17% of their body weight.

One of the reasons they’re so successful is that they’re asked to track both their exercise and their food intake. In the past, they did so with pen and paper. In recent years, however, most of the participants have embraced the high-tech approach, with mobile apps such as LiveStrong and MyFitnessPal. You might think that the members employing these solutions would be more successful at losing weight and keeping it off than their pen-and-paper counterparts—but you’d be wrong. Both groups of trackers lost similar amounts of weight and have kept it off. 

“It’s the tracking itself that makes members successful—not how they do it.” Melkerson-Granryd explains. “The key is identifying which method resonates most strongly with the individual. Having options is great because no one way is right for everyone.”

While the technological solution may not provide the definitive answer in every case, these high-tech tools aren’t likely to disappear. “We’re definitely seeing a move toward technology,” observes Todd Durkin, the owner of Fitness Quest 10, in San Diego, California. “Whether it’s as simple as a heart-rate monitor or something more complex, like VO2 max testing, the feedback and motivation that clients obtain from these tools is incredibly valuable.”

Technology, with its ability to provide instant feedback, meets an innate human desire for immediacy, Durkin suggests. Anything a club operator or fitness professional can do to motivate members and make them more accountable to themselves benefits everyone involved. And just because it’s technology doesn’t mean it has to be complex. “It can be as simple as a text message. Five years ago, we didn’t have texting, and now it’s the simplest way around to keep in touch with people,” says Durkin. “I text my clients on a daily basis, reminding them of my philosophy: Win the day.”

– Liane Cassavoy, liane.cassavoy@gmail.com 

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