PERSONAL trainers are too expensive and you donıt have time for the gym. For the latest fitness trend, however, all you need is the click of a mouse. Fitness industry sources are reporting a boom in cyber-gym services offering virtual-trainers who will guide you through workouts or e-gyms packed with a library of fitness videos to rival the classes on any health club timetable. At a fraction of the price of gym memberships - hands-on personal trainers charge between £25-£80 per hour while their cyber counterparts charge as little as £10 per month - and with the convenience of being instantly accessible wherever you are, it is not hard to see why the Fitness Industry Association estimates a 70 per cent increase in the number of people heading online to get fit over the next five years.
But some experts are concerned that cyber-gym members will get more than they bargained for when they pay their subscription fee. A lack of regulation means anyone can dispense fitness information online so unqualified trainers and poor advice can easily slip through the net. So concerned is the American Council on Exercise (ACE), a consumer watchdog in the US, that it has produced guidelines to help people avoid the risk of choosing a virtual gym that is more likely to leave you injured than fighting fit. ³Many sites offer complex strength training and conditioning programmes that are simply unsuitable for beginners,² claims the ACE report. ³There is also the added danger of unqualified trainers with questionable credentials doling out potentially hazardous fitness advice.²
Good sites allow you to contact an experienced trainer directly, but there are many more that leave you to your own devices, offering no feedback once you have paid your fee. Without supervision, anyone is at risk of employing poor technique which can result in injury. ³If you are inexperienced or out of condition in any way, you are asking for trouble with some online programmes,² says Fred Turok [corr], director of the UKıs Fitness Industry Association. ³Most gyms carry out health checks to ensure someone is fit to embark on an exercise programme and one in every 150 people are referred to their GP for further tests before they are allowed to start. You donıt get that safety net online.² Performing an exercise wrongly could mean you pull a muscle or worse. ³Beginners, especially, have no idea if they are doing something right,² Turok says.
He adds that although there is a growing market for e-fitness there are over one hundred UK cybergym sites and even major health club chains such as LA Fitness are using the internet to offer online training advice - it is unlikely to replace conventional gyms and personal trainers. Cliff Collins [corr], spokesperson for the Register of Exercise Professionals in the UK suggests checking out an online trainerıs qualifications on the before paying anything. ³Any reputable, UK-based trainer will be listed on our website,² Collins says. Sites should be easy to navigate and have clear visuals demonstrating exercises and preferably have online support, says ACE. The Council recommends avoiding any fitness site selling nutritional supplements or making outlandish claims about weight loss.
Even the best virtual workouts do not match those with a good, real-life personal trainer, says Professor Catherine Jackson [corr] an exercise physiologist at California State University who has investigated the market. Virtual trainers cannot track all key aspects of fitness - intensity, frequency and duration - in the same way as someone you meet in person at the gym. ³A real trainer can get to know an exerciser's motivations, and when he or she is telling the truth or lying about what they have done,² Jackson says.
Here we ask leading sports scientist Sam Howells [corr], of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences, for her verdict on virtual gyms:
Who are the trainers: Maya, a virtualı, computer-graphically designed personal trainer who delivers fitness advice collated from real-life experts.
The approach: A US-based site that claims to offer over 500 exercises, a complete fitness analysis, personalized goal setting, customized meal planner with over 4500 recipes and a detailed training log. Before starting, you are asked to complete a questionaire about your current health status to assesses your cardiovascular fitness, strength and flexibility. Maya then suggests exercises - including strength training, yoga, Pilates and step aerobics - that target areas of weakness. It can be used on a PC, Playstation2 or X Box. Each workout brings new music or new virtual scenery like an Alpine retreat.
Personal touches: Each time you start a workout Maya asks how you are feeling by email and records your response. She also nags if you miss a scheduled workout and sends an email reminder that you are slacking when you next turn on your computer. Periodically you are asked to rate the difficulty of the drills, so she can intensify the workout. "The more input you give her, the more personalized the workout becomes," claim her creators.
Cost: £18.50 to get the programme for a year
Sam Howellsı verdict: Seems to offer good, sound physical activity and nutritional advice. You are asked to rate your perceived exertion during each workout to help you maintain the correct intensity of work and there is a good tutorial service explaining exercise techniques in detail. A weekly meal plan complete with recipes, preparation instructions, shopping lists enables you to adjust your menu to fit your preferences. And you can even download a cookbook for your calorie requirements.
Rating: 8 out of 10.
EyeToy: Kinetic www.eyetoykinetic.com
Who are the trainers: A European-designed site featuring either British Anna, whose coaching style is firm but polite, or her American counterpart, Matt. Both are computer graphic, virtual trainers whose expertiseı is supplied by a panel of real life trainers.
The approach: Created by Sony and Nike, the programme has the optional use of an EyeToy camera (which you must purchase separately)to capture your movements and beam them onto the screen. Book in an appointment with Anna or Matt and they will feedback comments on your technique. There are four options to choose from combat, mind/body, toning and cardio depending on your goals.
Personal touch: Feedback is via email. Trainers will provide pointers and encouragement as they lead you through kickboxing, yoga, tai chi or cardiovascular drills like the ball drop game. You are encouraged to advance to tougher challenges after you have mastered easier ones. After a sub-par showing, Matt will say "You've got a bit of work ahead of you but overall I think that was a strong performance." Or he may cheer, "I like what I see!"
Cost: £30-00 per year
Sam Howellsı verdict: Offers good, basic information on fitness and injury prevention as well as some dietary advice. The images are clear and easy to follow and there seems to be a reasonable monitoring procedure.
Rating: 7 out of 10
Matt Roberts www.poweradeaquaplus.com
Who are the trainers: Matt Roberts, the UKıs leading personal trainer, has teamed up with Powerade, the sports drink manufacturer, to provide an online training service
The approach: The circuit-based programme offers 12 key exercises that target key body areas of the body and six different 30 minute workouts all designed by Roberts. There are detailed explanations for al exercises
Personal touches: You are asked six questions before you start, but there is no progressive or monitoring element and no helpline.
Sam Howellsı verdict: There is no cardiovascular component to this workout and even if the exercises are performed as a non-stop circuit, enhancements to your aerobic fitness would not be significant. However, it doesnıt promise to be anything other than an introduction to exercise and it is useful for anyone who wants to try some different exercises.
Rating: 6 out of 10
Who are the trainers: You are introduced to a range of real-life male trainers, all of whom use first names only and are picture baring their muscly chests.
The approach: A UK-based training service that promises not to send out standardized programmes. Although it claims to cater for all sectors of the fitness market and there is a section for women, the site appears to be targeted more towards men.
Personal touches: You can link up by webcam chats and MSN messenger chats with trainers who will check your technique as you workout. The interactive monitors allow you to track progress and interact with an instructor 24h a day 365 days a year.
Cost: £50 per year for a personalized fitness and nutrition programme.
Sam Howellsı verdict: Details of trainersı qualifications is worryingly vague. Many are named simply as instructors or health advisors with no mention of their qualifications. Although it offers different programmes for fitness, health, muscle building and slimming, the core text on each page is the same and it doesnıt identify how these would differ.
Rating: 2 out of 10
Who are the trainers: A US-based bank of trainers, all of whom are profiled on the site.
The approach: Unlimited 24 hour access to on-line 10-20 minute fitness videosı including yoga, pilates, cardio aerobics, kickboxing and weights. New classes are added regularly and include the latest fitness trends such s military cardio and armchair yoga. Once you have filled in a questionnaire, videos are selected for you according to your fitness level and experience. You can choose from beginner, intermediate or advanced level.
Personal touches: Offers a free 15-point personal profile which involves filling in a questionnaire before you sign up. However, there is no personal contact or monitoring once you get started.
Cost: From £2.15 per week for six weeks - the minimum length of subscription. The longer you join for, the cheaper it gets.
Sam Howellsı verdict: Itıs worrying that some of the testimonial statements on the home page feature people who have lost in 5 pounds in 5 days thatıs too much too fast. The questions in the initial profile are too general I was told to train twice a day which is unrealistic. However, the videos are fully instructed so beginners could manage to follow them.
Rating: 4 out of 10
Demand Fitness www.demandfitness.com
Who are the trainers: A bank of well-qualified instructors, all profiled on the site.
The approach: You are asked to create a personal profile and then select from a curriculumı of over 50 different classes categorized according to their difficulty and the aspect of fitness they aim to improve (flexibility, strength, cardio, and stabilization). Class length varies from 20-60 minutes. There are also specialist classesı ranging from fitness ballet to pilates. Once you join, you receive streamlined classes direct to your computer.
Personal touches: Although you can email the site with queries, there is no monitoring service
Cost: From £5.50 a month
Sam Howellsı verdict: There is general advice on weight loss and nutrition, but no specific help. This is not the most well-rounded fitness programme. Because people are able to choose classes themselves thereıs a risk they will select those they find easy rather than those they really need.
Rating: 5 out of 10.
Robert Fiteni www.onlinepersonaltrainer.co.uk
Who are the trainers: Robert Fiteni is a personal trainer based in London. He is ACE qualified and is on the Register of Exercise Professionals.
The approach: Fiteni promises to provide a fitness programme tailored to your individual needs. The website features extensive fitness information and also offers services such as running schedules, fitness equipment to buy and lots of case studies of satisfied clients.
Cost: A straightforward fitness programme, providing you with a workout schedule but limited monitoring or feedback, costs £25. A one month consultation programme (with unlimited email access to Fiteni and a monitoring service via an online journal that you must complete for feedback) costs £47.50. For 12 months consultation you would pay £558.50 (roughly equivalent to two sessions per month of personal training)
Sam Howellsı verdict: Itıs not the cheapest programme around, but it seems to be one of the best. Fiteni sends photogoraphs and clear instructions for each exercise and you are encouraged to contact him if you are still unclear about technique.
Rating: 9 out of 10.
HOW TO CHOOSE AN ONLINE TRAINER
ACE suggests the following steps when choosing a cybergym:
1. Check the qualifications of the staff that will be training you. Sites should provide background information about their staff. If in doubt, check them out on www.exerciseregister.org
2. Inquire about the trainer's experience with your age group or with your particular needs or health challenges (eg. specialization with older adults, weight management or women).
3. Be wary of sites that rely on ''celebrity trainers'' or professional athletes to sell their services. It's important to find out who will actually be designing your workouts. And always avoid sites that make exaggerated claims or guarantee fitness results
4. Make sure the site is easy to navigate. If it's too complicated you probably won't stick with it. Some companies will allow you to ''tour'' the site before signing up.
5. Look for a sample workout plan. If available, make sure the plans are thorough and detailed (eg. weight, sets, repetitions, intensity) and not simply a list of exercises.
6. Determine whether the site provides a method for visually communicating proper exercise technique as text-only instructions can be difficult to follow.
7. The site should provide an easy means of contacting your trainer for questions or concerns. Most sites provide email contact, but also look for sites that have a phone number
8. Look for a site that provides bulletin board-type forums and online group support that you can use to communicate with other exercisers with similar goals.
9. Avoid training sites that ''prescribe'' nutritional supplement programs. Trainers should not be advising you on nutrition (beyond the basic healthy advice) unless they are state registered dietitians.
10. Make sure the site requires you to complete a detailed health-history questionnaire. This should address, among other things, your goals, present level of fitness and health concerns. Trainers need to this information to customize a program to fit your needs. Online exercisers should be honest when filling out the evaluation forms: don't lie about your age, weight or experience level as it could reduce the effectiveness of your training program and possibly lead to injury.
Article Source: Daily Mail; 16th May 2006; pages 54-55