Patty Kennedy was using a personal trainer four times a week when injuries from a car accident forced her onto the sidelines. By the time the Charlotte (N.C.) resident returned to the gym, her trainer was booked, so she decided to go it alone. But something was missing. "I needed more structure," says the 42-year-old ultrasound technician.
That's when she discovered MyFitnessExpert.com, one of many Internet sites offering personalized fitness instruction. The site designed a program for her based on her vital health statistics, workout history, and fitness goals. Now, Kennedy can chart her progress or revise her workout routine online on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. She also can contact by e-mail the cybertrainer assigned to her for follow-up questions. "It's very personal," says Kennedy, who has used the site for six months. "I'm managing my weight, I've been able to build strength, and I'm training for a marathon."
Web accessibility is drawing more people to "virtual" trainers as an alternative to training alone or working with a fitness instructor. One reason: Personal trainers charge $30 to $150 an hour, while an online service usually runs a few dollars a month. Web training is also more flexible since you don't have to meet at a certain time and place. And it's ideal for people who want expert advice but don't need hand-holding. "I like to work out by myself, and I can get everything from the Web site," says Doug Gotelli, 43, a salesman for Tyco Electronics in San Jose, Calif., who has been using Workout.com for about a year.
Superior sites offer videos showing proper form and the sequence of exercises. They also provide recipes based on a person's diet and preferences. Many also offer feedback from experts, usually within 24 to 48 hours, on everything from training while pregnant to injuries. Some send the user a daily e-mail prescribing that day's exercises--reps, sets, and weight amounts, or specific cardiovascular routines. Many users simply download information to their laptops or print out routines to carry with them to the gym.
CHECK CREDENTIALS. The Web can't completely replace personal training. And experts warn that, as with online dating, it's hard to know if the information you're getting lives up to its billing. "Anyone with a good rap and a nice photo" can set up shop electronically, says Gregory Florez, founder of FitAdvisor.com and a spokesman for the American Council on Exercise (www.acefitness.org), the nation's largest accreditation organization, with some 50,000 members.
Lack of regulation remains a serious problem in the fitness industry, both online and off. So it's important to check credentials, says Ken Germano, executive director for ACE. The sites usually list bios and name some of the professional designations that qualified pros have. Users should review them, e-mail for more info, and ask to talk to other clients. Credentials can also be vetted via ACE or other groups, such as the American College of Sports Medicine (www.acsm.org) and the National Strength & Conditioning Assn. (www.nsca-cc.org). All keep current records of members.
It takes motivation--and ample discipline--to make online training work. But combining those attributes with the right virtual trainer can yield very real results By Douglas Robson