Turning a Smartphone Into a Workout Buddy

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Summer is coming at last. Like me, you may be thinking that a few improvements to your fitness and physique might be in order before you hit the beach. It's also possible that, like me, you find it hard to motivate yourself to exercise or to head to the gym, and you don't like the idea of a personal trainer. Time for an app, in other words, and there are many out there to help us get in shape.

My favorite is Nike Training Club, free on Android and iOS. It has a simple, clean interface, so you can exercise without distractions. The home page has a summary of your training performance and a menu bar that takes you to pages with more details on your previous workouts. There's also a rewards page where you can earn digital badges for completing workouts.

To start exercising, you click the Get Workouts button, or pick Quick Start and choose the workout you did previously. Workouts vary, depending on whether you want a leaner body or a stronger one, for example. When you choose an activity the app inquires about your experience level (beginner to expert) and offers a list of different exercise styles. As an example, the beginner level's Get Lean workout has a 30-minute "sweat and shape" and a harder 45-minute "crunch and burn" workout.

Before you begin, the app lists the activities it will ask you to do. You can click on these to get step-by-step advice, with images, to help you do them correctly. Or you can watch a professional demonstrate the moves in a short video.

When you begin a workout, the app gives you a spoken summary of what's ahead, and then starts a large on-screen clock. While you're exercising, the app speaks aloud at key moments to give you tips or let you know how much time remains in the exercise. In the Straight Leg Kicks exercise, it reminds you to "roll up on the ball of the standing foot when you kick." You can exercise to this voice alone, or listen to music from your device library with the coaching voice superimposed over your music.

The app has a huge list of different workouts and includes examples from famous athletes like Gabby Douglas. Its one drawback may be that it requires you to sign up for a free Nike account or connect through your Facebook account.

A great alternative app is Gain Fitness Cross Trainer, free on iOS. While its design is less glossy, it may suit serious exercisers. The app has prebuilt workouts like Torso Rush and Full Bod Livelong, but you can also add workouts customized to your needs. The app can suggest exercise programs based on your goals and where you exercise, at home or on the go. You can also choose a workout time and which part of your body you want to concentrate on (for example, full body or just legs and abs).

When the workout starts, an overview describes the different exercises it's going to run through. For fun or for motivation, you can e-mail this list or share it through Twitter or Facebook. Tapping on the little information icon pauses the exercise and shows a list of text-based tips on how to carry it out.

While the workout is running, the app shows you an animated image of the current exercise. Beneath this image, a large progress bar shows you how much time is left for each exercise; below that is a smaller progress bar for the entire workout. At the bottom are controls for stopping the workout, skipping or repeating a particular exercise and controlling the sound.

The app uses audio encouragements like, "Nice," and reminds you of time limits, but the words are spoken in a very neutral voice and can get repetitive. This may not necessarily inspire you to athletic heights.

Workout Trainer is a similar free Android app, with simple animations of each exercise and voice cues to help you with the timing. Its clean and simple visual design shouldn't distract you as you work up a sweat. But the trainer voices on the free version are electronic and may grate on your nerves.

While there's a sizable selection of workouts to choose from, many more require a $15-a-year subscription. Subscribers do benefit from human audio recordings and high-definition videos of the exercises, though.

Quick Call

The BBC has released an Android version of its Sports app, free on Google Play. Available internationally, the app has articles and breaking news on soccer, cricket, tennis and other sports.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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