Do Fitness Apps Really Work? I Put This Insta-Famous One To The Test
These days, there’s no shortage of options when it comes to fitness. Boutique studios, weekend-long wellness retreats, personal training sessions, and now even digital courses that let you work out in the privacy and comfort of your own home. Of all the fitness trends at one’s fingertips, it seems the latter is becoming increasingly popular and trendy, particularly for those with busy schedules and little flexibility. But, as appealing and convenient as these at-home workouts are, they beg the question: Do fitness apps actually work? For the sake of research, and in an attempt to get my own health routine back on track in the new year, I decided to put one of the most popular programs to the ultimate test.
Confession: While I do fancy myself a healthy and fit individual, the last three months or so of 2018 said otherwise. Between my work schedule and commitments, social calendar (and holiday season engagements), and the undeniable temptation of my cozy couch, my fitness routine went from frequent to non-existent. It seemed every week, I would recommit to working out and every week it would fall by the wayside. So, after much deliberation and a bit of research I thought I would go the convenient route and give one of the biggest fitness trends a whirl. Yes, I’m referring to the Insta-famous Sweat app, co-created by fitness guru and mega-influencer Kayla Itsines.
In the three years since its launch the app has risen quickly to cult status and has been widely embraced by millennials in particular. In fact, according to TechCrunch, the app was reported to earn $77 million in 2018. That’s not exactly small potatoes. So what is the secret to this program’s success? One word: Options. Sweat was designed as a one-stop shop for fitness, featuring several programs to choose from, all designed by Itsines and her team of professional fitness instructors. In addition to Itsines’ strength-focused routine, users can follow others that align more to their needs and lifestyles: yoga, pregnancy, postpartum, etc. The workouts themselves lend themselves to ultimate convenience, being about 25 to 35 minutes in length, and can be done anytime, anywhere. Sounds pretty ideal, right? It’s no wonder millions of users swear by it.
And while Instagram paints a pretty picture of bodies and lives being transformed by the app, I know that these idyllic posts aren’t always completely authentic. Ahead, see what really went down when I tested out the Sweat app for an entire week.
For my research, I chose to follow the BBG Beginner program, designed by Itsines herself. The full-body plan, designed to be done at home with or without equipment, features 28-minute high-intensity workouts that are a mixture of cardio, bodyweight, and strength-building exercises. I love that the app outlines each workout by day as well as step-tracking to keep you accountable to your progress. Being that I'm the queen of compromise, I need as much hand-holding and direction as possible.
One thing I didn't take advantage of in this trial was the food plan recommended by the app. This is mainly due to the fact that I chose to start this program at the end of December, amidst the winter holidays. For each week of the program, Sweat outlines a suggested meal plan every day for optimum energy and results, which I find very convenient, considering my busy work schedule. Nutrient- and fiber-rich meals like breakfast wraps, Caesar salads, and berry-infused yogurt are all in rotation, so your body is getting plenty of fuel to power through the more intense workouts.
For reference, each day consists of a different area of focus and a specific workout to address that focus. Mondays, for instance, focused on legs and consisted of four circuits of eight exercises that included skipping rope, static lunges, jump squats, and burpees. Another day would focus on arms and abs, and other days allowed me to choose the 35-minute low intensity workout of my choice (walking, running, cycling, etc.). There were also days for designated "challenges," which are shorter, yet more intense sessions intended to push you a bit harder. I discovered these to be convenient for days I was especially short on time and couldn't squeeze in a 30-minute workout (as these challenges average about 15 minutes in length.)
While 30-minute workouts consisting of push-ups, burpees, and leg-lifts seem easy enough, I assure you they are far from it. Because they focus on strengthening, they require repetitious, static movement that can be a shock to the system if your previous workout history did not include strength-training or any type of weight-lifting. This was absolutely the case for me as not only had I not worked out in months, but my exercise of choice thus far mainly included running and some hot yoga.
My body found itself working muscles it had never really worked before and, as a result, I found myself having a hard time even finishing my first couple strengthening workouts (the ones working my arms, abs, and legs). The "challenges" were also, er, challenging in that the rapid flow and intense movement definitely took its toll on my body and, even after just five minutes or so of exercising, I was sweating quite a bit (hence the title of the app, right?).
Because of my difficulty in completing some of the exercises, I was pretty discouraged and disappointed in myself. Was I that out of shape? Is there something wrong with me that I can't finish a 28-minute workout? Am I lazy? Obviously, the answer to all of these is no. These workouts are designed and intended to be intense and a shock to your system. If your body is not used to this type of muscle work, you will probably go through the same thing I did.
Often, when I couldn't complete a strengthening workout, I would supplement it with a low-intensity session, which I found to be much more feasible, due to my history as a cardio-fanatic. I would go for a long walk or jog to make sure my body kept moving and got a good amount of exercise for the day.
My advice? Power through and do what you can. If you make it through 10, 15, or 20 minutes of a workout, pat yourself on the back and be patient with your body as it gets stronger. I can attest to this, as my last couple days definitely got easier. I'm sure as I continue to use the app (as I'm keeping with the program for the rest of January) my muscles will become more adjusted to the movements and strain and I'll be able to actually complete these sessions that were so challenging in my first week. Strengthening is, after all, the goal of this beginner's program, so you must allow it time to work its magic.
I admit my initial week of the Sweat app's beginner's course was far from perfect and, to be honest, I'm not sure that it will be something I stick with for the long haul. However, after a week of trial and error, I'm definitely curious to see how things progress. And, as I continue, there are a few things I'll keep in mind, now that I've test-driven a few of these exercises. For those attempting the Sweat app or a similar program, here are some of the major takeaways I've logged:
- Do it right or don't do it at all. Because there's no physical trainer to supervise the workouts, there's no one to tell you if you're doing it wrong. For this reason, I would observe each exercise for a bit to ensure I got the form right — and I advise you to do the same. If you don't, you risk injury.
- Expect to be sore. I was working muscles that hadn't been worked much before, so some pain after the fact (and for the next few days) was and is inevitable. But, I took it as a sign that I was waking up my body and making it stronger.
- Nourishment pre- and post-workout is key. Prep and recovery for any workout is very important. I realized that starting each session on an empty stomach (or with sugary, junky foods) made me tap out quicker. A small protein-packed meal (apple slices and peanut butter is my fave) about 30 minutes to an hour before made me last longer for sure. In the same vein, refueling immediately after the workout was also essential to keeping my energy levels up for the rest of the day (as I typically did my workouts in the mornings or mid-day). Try a protein shake or drink right after your session and, of course, stay hydrated for the rest of the day.
- Be patient with yourself. Walking into any new fitness routine with high expectations is a bad idea. I realized that even if I wasn't able to finish an entire Sweat session, that didn't mean I wasn't making progress. Like anything in life, practice can and will make perfect (or better at the very least). Don't expect your first week or two or even three to be flawless. Just stay consistent and the rest will follow.
- Rest days are important. Often, when I jump into a new project, I go in full-steam ahead, thinking that if I go above and beyond the call of duty I'll reach my goal (or results) quicker. With apps like this, that is not the way to go. Make sure to take the designated rest days in the app and allow your body time to recover and recharge
- Don't force anything. As weird as it sounds, exercise should be a stress-relieving, energy-boosting activity that's enjoyable. The jury is still out on whether I'll continue to enjoy the Sweat app, but if anything changes and I have to force myself to keep the program going, I'll definitely switch gears. If working out becomes a punishment or chore, you'll never do it — and/or you won't give it 100 percent. Do what makes you happy and makes you feel good about yourself.
Because my trial was only about a week, I didn't exactly see astronomical results in terms of muscle definition or tone, but I didn't exactly expect this — or aim for this. Honestly, my purpose of this experiment was to see if I could even complete a week of this program. And, I did.
I'll also credit this program for getting me back on the fitness track. The previous three months had zapped my energy and caused me to be anxious and irritable from lack of exercise. Getting out of bed in the morning, in particular, was especially difficult. After a week of trying the Sweat app, I found my energy much improved and mornings much easier to navigate.
I also found myself with a renewed enthusiasm for working out and getting my body moving again. I actually looked forward to taking on a new challenging workout and getting outside for a quick run, which I hadn't felt in some time. The app was the perfect kickstart to getting my fitness routine back on track and, more importantly, taking some time for myself.
I definitely plan on continuing the app and am excited to see what changes and progress I'll make in the weeks to come. It's an exciting thing to see and feel yourself getting stronger, and I plan on enjoying the view a bit longer.