Staying fit is important. Even if it seems enjoyable to lie on the couch and devour hours of YouTube videos on your iPad, science says you're actually happier when you exercise. Fortunately, gadgets can fit in with your gym routine, and the right apps can even make it better. We've tested dozens of fitness apps, including ones that can help you train for a marathon, stick to a diet or do a downward-facing dog pose with the precision of a yogi. If you're serious about getting into shape, here's what you should download first.
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It must be said that picking a best fitness app is a bit like comparing toasters to badgers. Different apps, created for different purposes, achieve totally different goals. So we're starting the list with a handful of honourable mentions — apps that were very specific but great for the purpose they serve. After that, we have just the best all-around choices — the all-time top five desert island fitness apps.
If you stay loose: Pocket Yoga
When you start doing yoga, even downward dog is difficult. It requires strength, breathing, focus and practice. When you can't get to the studio for a class, you can maintain your practice from home with an app that takes you through a full session. Choose from different styles, levels of difficulties and durations. $2.81 for Android and $2.99 for iOS.
If you pace your pulse: Instant Heart Rate and Cardiio
Knowing your heart rate can help you keep in the right zone for fat-burning cardio, and tracking your resting heart rate is a good metric to chart your progress and overall health. Not everybody can afford a fancy heart rate monitor, but it turns out your smartphone has one built in: the camera. Every time your heart beats, there's a subtle change in your skin colour, and your phone's camera is sensitive enough to detect it. It's surprisingly accurate! Instant Heart Rate is free for Android; for iOS, Cardiio costs $5.49.
The Top Five
5th Place: Workout Trainer
For some instruction and motivation, Skimble's "Workout Trainer" is rather handy. It has hundreds of workouts to choose from, and you can filter them by how much time you have, what equipment you have access to, what muscle groups you want to work and your desired intensity level. Photos of each exercise and digitised voices (which are horrible and grating) coach you through the routines.
If you upgrade to a paid subscription (for $US3/month or $US25/year), the demon voices are swapped out for an actual coach talking you through it. Plus, the photos are replaced with video demonstrations, which are far more useful. Everything syncs with Skimble.com. It's a nicely designed app, but the subscription model is too expensive. For iOS and Android.
4th Place: JEFIT
If you're trying to beef up (or build lean muscle), it's important to keep track of your reps, sets and the weights you're lifting. The gym app "JEFIT" was designed for stat-obsessed bodybuilders. The free app has a few pre-designed routines you can follow and edit, or you can make your own from the list of over 500 exercises. Each exercise has an animation and some procedure tips, and they're searchable by what specific muscle you want to work and what equipment you have access to.
It just makes it really easy to log what you did, time your rest between sets and sync your data with JEFIT.com. The app interface is pretty spartan, but it serves its purpose. Free and pro versions, both on iOS and Android.
3rd Place: Endomondo
Endomondo is a great-looking, feature-loaded app for outdoor exercise. It can track you while you're doing just about anything, from running and cycling to swimming and windsurfing (somehow). You can find popular routes near you, challenge your friends or join their teams. The app can connect to heart rate monitors or cycling cadence devices, and it can import data from a FitBit gadget, or stats from the RunKeeper app, among many others.
The UI has some problems though — the abrasive beeps that mark intervals last way too long, ruining whatever music you're listening to. It's supposed to pause when you stop (at a red light or to tie your shoes), but that doesn't work well, and sometimes it thinks you're stopped even when you're running. The website's interface is generally nice, but when looking at your charts, it doesn't reflect what program you were doing, so it's not as easy to track progress as it could be.
But overall it's a nice app. There are lots of options in the free version, and you can upgrade to Pro for $5 to add interval programs, personal best challenges and calorie goals. Available for iOS and Android.
2nd Place: Nike Training Club
Circuit training is a really good way to kick your butt into gear. A circuit is basically a variety of pre-determined workouts that you can do independent of one another depending on which areas you want to work out.
That's the idea behind the dozens of options in Nike Training Club. Videos explain just what mountain climbers, hip lifts or any of the other exercises are, so there's less of a chance of you completely screwing up your form. And even if you're new to circuit training, you don't need to be intimidated. You can pick routines from three levels — beginner, intermediate and expert.
It's great because sometimes your exercise routine gets stale, which is boring, and it can impact your results. At those times, you need a little inspiration to change things up, and NTC gives you just that.Free, but currently only for iOS and only if you have a US iTunes account. It's currently unavailable in the Australian store.
Some of us are awful runners. RunKeeper is a fantastic motivator. It records stats for every run you complete, then lets you compare your pace from day to day. You can set long-term goals. To make sure you stay on track, a reassuring voice cuts in every five minutes to read back your pace and distance.
But beyond the basics, it's just really adaptable to a lot of different types of workouts. Customisable training plans let you focus your progress on going longer distances or making better times. You can focus solely on improving your heart rate, as it can connect to a Bluetooth heart rate monitor and provide coaching just on that statistic. It can import activity from Fitbit, and it can be set to track your speeds as you cycle, swim, or even rollerblade (and, yes, rollerblading totally counts as exercise).
What makes this the single the best app — besides its intuitive interface and near-universal integration — is the way it's equally valuable to a veteran runner or someone just getting started. You can follow a pre-determined routine for close guidance, or you can simply say, "I want to run two kilometres" and off you go — with a coach guiding you the whole way. Free for Android and iOS.
There are literally hundreds of other fitness apps. What favourites did we miss?