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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Beyond tracking

Online fitness programs, smartphone apps cater to those seeking better workouts, nutrition advice and 24/7 support

The future is here, and it’s sweaty and integrative.

The treadmills at Eastern Washington University’s fitness center are outfitted with touch-screen modules that lets gym users track their workouts – duration, calories burned – using software that connects to an app they can download on their smartphones.

The Netpulse software also lets people watch music videos and browse the Web.

Jake Rehm, director of the fitness center, believes the software represents the “wave of the future” in the fitness world. Other fitness centers offer similar software.

“It’s more than just working out now,” Rehm said. “It’s really an experience for them, besides just running or bicycling.”

For those seeking virtual engagement – entertainment, encouragement, education – as they push themselves physically toward fitness and weight loss, the Internet and smartphone-app stores are happy to help.

Wearable devices such as FitBits and tracking apps – programs such as the popular MyFitnessPal – are heralded by health and weight-loss professionals who note that recording your meals and exercise boosts your chances of losing weight.

But they’re only a starting point, said Dr. Cameron Sepah, medical director at Omada Health, a San Francisco-based company that calls itself a pioneer in “digital therapeutics.”

“They’re sort of like the 1.0 version of digital health,” Sepah said. The next generation – the 2.0 of digital health – puts tracking tools to work in a broader context, drawing on the principles of behavioral science to help people improve their health in the long term.

Sepah’s company created an online program called Prevent, a version of the year-long Diabetes Prevention Program created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (UnitedHealth Group, which helped create the in-person program, has a similar online program called Not Me available through some insurers.)

The Diabetes Prevention Program targets overweight people diagnosed with prediabetes or considered at high risk for the disease. It’s based on research that found that many people who lost 7 percent of their body weight and exercised at least 150 minutes a week had a good chance of warding off the disease.

Normally, local organizations offer the classes through group meetings.

In Omada Health’s online version, a new lesson about diet or exercise “unlocks” weekly. Participants are placed into virtual groups of about 15 people, based on their age, location and body-mass index. Each group is assigned a health coach who provides individual counseling by phone or online messaging.

Participants receive monthly kits by mail, including a wireless scale and a digital pedometer to track their progress.

“All that data goes online,” Sepah said, “so that they can see how they’re doing, they can see how they’re doing relative to other people, and their coach can personalize the interventions.”

While it lacks the benefits of face-to-face interaction, online participation has its own advantages, he said: “Our program is literally 24/7. People can use it whenever they want. I think that’s what society has shifted to, if you look at platforms like Facebook or Instagram. You log in whenever it’s convenient to you – you can catch up at any time.”

At $120 a month for the first four months, then $20 a month for the rest of the year, Prevent is pricy (although some insurers will cover it). Weight Watchers’ online program – including tracking apps and online support groups – was being advertised last week for $65 for three months. Other weight-loss companies offer varying degrees of support at varying prices.

But other programs and smartphone apps that go beyond tracking are low cost or free.

Thousands are available. Among some favorites cited by fitness professionals in the region and elsewhere:

SparkPeople.com, a free website that offers interactive tools, such as fitness trackers and meal plans, along with support and encouragement from a “positive community of members and experts,” according to the website.

• Jessica Riley, fitness coordinator at the Kroc Center in Coeur d’Alene, said she recommends the integrated iPhone Azumio apps, available for Apple products, which track heart rate and sleep time and quality “and help the clients with a total wellness approach, not just weight loss or fitness workouts.”

• For workouts, Riley uses Azumio’s Fitness Buddy app (free or $1.99, depending on the version, at Apple’s App Store) and the free GAIN Fitness iPhone apps to email digital workouts to personal-training clients. The free Hot5 iPhone app offers five-minute video workouts that target the upper body, lower body, cardiovascular system or other area. And “anybody has five minutes, so they can’t have any darn excuse,” Riley said.

• Amy Straub, a fitness coach at the Kroc Center, said she likes the free video workouts through Grokker.com: “It’s kind of like taking a class on your iPhone.” The site also offers video classes on cooking and yoga.

• The New York Times’ free Scientific 7-Minute Workout and Advanced 7-Minute Workout apps offer free step-by-step guides with animated illustrations, a timer and audio cues. Available for iOS and Android users through mobile.nytimes.com, the original workout – fulfilling “the latest mandates for high-intensity effort” – consist of exercises that deploy only your body weight, a chair and a wall. The advanced version also requires dumbbells.

TRX Force for Android and Apple, originally designed for military use, “basically gets you ready for boot camp,” Straub said. It offers some free workouts but charges $39.99 for the Super App.

For $14.99 a month, DailyBurn offers a variety of fitness videos users can watch on their phones but also on streaming devices such as Apple TV or Roku. It combines workout videos with food tracking options.

“It’s kind of like a personal trainer in your living room,” Straub said.

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