New Tech Is Changing How We Exercise

Can apps and fitness trackers make exercise more fun or more frequent? There's not a simple answer.

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woman running on treadmill with tv Peloton

Technology is changing the way some Americans exercise.

Smartwatches, apps, and even virtual classes and competitions are among the ways people are using it today to accomplish their fitness goals.

“Technology can help engage people in exercise more,” says Dori E. Rosenberg, Ph.D., a clinical health psychologist and an associate investigator with the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute.

For example, a virtual class that lets treadmill users compare their pace with everyone else may challenge those who are bored by regular treadmill running.

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The latest treadmills and ellipticals offer plenty of high-tech options to help motivate people, says Peter Anzalone, senior test project leader for fitness equipment at CR. Exercise equipment has long provided programmed workouts (such as “hills” or intervals), but internet connectivity has expanded the choices considerably.

“There’s a big trend toward providing ever-different varieties of workouts and being connected through a phone app or the internet so you can track your workout history,” Anzalone says. “Physicians can even ‘prescribe’ exercise and then monitor their patients to see how they’re doing.”

Some treadmills and ellipticals now offer program options via a monthly subscription, and many let you track your distance, speed, and even heart rate over time using an app.

The ability to join remote classes while at home is one of the more recent innovations.

Peloton popularized this trend with its stationary bike. And with its pricey new treadmill, The Peloton Tread, you can exercise live (or on demand) with an instructor who will take you through walking, running, and even strength-based workouts. (The treadmill comes with hand weights.)

Fitness-tracking options are also becoming more common on exercise machines.

Of our recommended treadmills, the NordicTrack Commercial 2450, Xterra TRX4500, and Bowflex BXT216 can connect to fitness apps or internet-based programs to help you track your progress.

Wearable activity trackers, such as the Fitbit or Apple Watch, track steps, heart rate, calories burned, and other workout stats, and even inexpensive apps that you can download to your smartphone offer basic activity-tracking capabilities.

While simple fitness trackers might encourage increased activity and weight loss, experts caution that just wearing one or downloading a tracking app to your smartphone isn’t a magic bullet.

“On their own, these devices generally aren’t enough to change behaviors,” says Matthew Buman, Ph.D., an associate professor in the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University. “You need education and support to really make it work.”

Studies have found that having a support network, such as an online group of people with similar goals, can make it easier to stick with healthy lifestyle changes.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the January 2019 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

Janet Lee

Janet Lee, LAc, is an acupuncturist and a freelance writer in Kansas who contributes to Consumer Reports on a range of health-related topics. She has been covering health, fitness, and nutrition for the past 25 years as a writer and editor. She's certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine and Yoga Alliance, and is a trained Spinning instructor.