Fitness apps can help people get in shape — here's how to use one of the top science-backed workout apps

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Most Americans don’t get enough exercise.

Less than a quarter of adults ages 18 to 64 met the government’s recommended physical-activity guidelines from 2010 to 2015. Those guidelines call for healthy adults to do a minimum of 2 1/2 hours of moderate-intensity activity – or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity – plus at least two muscle-strengthening days a week.

Exercise is essentially the closest thing that exists to a miracle drug – something that can extend life, boost mood and improve mental health, fight disease, and just make you feel better as you live your day-to-day life.

But once you decide it’s time to get fit, it can be hard to know where to start. Fitness apps can help.

No app is a solution on its own, but there’s more and more evidence that whether your goals are to start running or get stronger, apps seeking to guide workouts can help.

One of the top apps for getting in shape is the Sworkit app, which functions as a sort of playlist for exercise, whether you want to do bodyweight strength exercises, stretches, cardio, or yoga. The company behind the app received a $US1.5 million investment from Mark Cuban after appearing on “Shark Tank,” and there’s scientific evidence backing the use of Sworkit for training, too.

In 2015, a team of sports scientists analysed 30 popular free fitness apps and found that Sworkit was the most closely aligned with the American College of Sports Medicine’s training guidelines. (At the time, Sworkit had a free version, though new users now need to sign up for the paid version of the app, for which there is a 30-day free trial.*)

Those guidelines say a workout should include aerobic, strength, resistance, and flexibility components; it should follow evidence-based guidelines for frequency, intensity, and types of workouts; and it should include safety measures to help make sure beginners start at a safe point.

No app was perfect, the analysis found (and most were terrible). The biggest concern that researchers had was that by getting a workout from an app instead of from a trainer, a person might try to do too much and injure themselves.

But overall, that analysis found that Sworkit provided useful guidelines for strength training, cardio, and flexibility exercise, and I personally have found it a fun and effective way to fit in a workout on busy days.

(It is worth noting that another recent analysis that compared apps to the ACSM’s training guidelines had many of the same concerns about injuries, and that analysis didn’t rank Sworkit as highly as several other popular apps worth trying, including NikePlus and the top choice in that analysis, the The Johnson and Johnson Official 7-Minute Workout, highly recommended by my colleague Erin Brodwin. Those apps are free.)

But if you’re interested in a playlist of exercises that can be done without equipment and for a variable duration of time, we’d recommend giving Sworkit a try. Here’s how it works.

*Correction: Sworkit used to have a free version, which this writer had been able to continue to use, since the app had been previously downloaded.

But readers have alerted us that new users now have to sign up for the premium version of the app, for which there is a 30-day free trial. Sworkit Premium costs $US9.99 a month or $US6.66 a month for people who pay by the year. It includes a number of customisation options and the option to communicate with trainers about your workouts. This review was written based on the free version.


The initial interface is simple and clean.

Sworkit

When you open the app, you can choose whether you want to focus on strength, cardio, yoga, or stretching.

All the exercises are bodyweight-based, so you don’t need equipment for any of the workouts. While I wouldn’t use this as my only fitness option, it’s a nice way to get a varied workout that can be done at home or on the road.


There are custom or sport-specific workouts.

SworkitSome of these routines are locked here because this writer was using a free version of the app.

If you want some variation from the initial options, there are also custom workouts on the home screen.

Some are targeted toward beginners, older athletes, or people with a specific fitness goal.

These routines include a number of sport-specific workouts or routines targeting specific body parts.


After choosing from one of the four main categories of workout — Ā strength, cardio, yoga, or stretching — you get to select a focused workout from within that category.

Sworkit

Within the “strength” category, for example, you can choose between a full-body workout, an upper-body workout, a core workout, or a lower-body-focused workout.

The full-body workout is a great go-to option here. While I like to go for a run, ride a bike, or climb when I can, this is a nice alternative for particularly hot or freezing days.

Still, if you are going to use the app regularly, it’s good to switch things up to stress different parts of your body.

You can work up a good sweat and push yourself hard enough that you get the mental clarity that’s one of the best benefits of exercise.


Once you choose a workout, you’ll see a list of the included exercises.

Sworkit

A large number of exercises are included in each workout, and the order of those exercises will vary – it’s not the exact same routine or even the same exercises every time, even within one workout.

The full-body strength workout, for example, includes 72 exercises. These range from relatively easy exercises, like wall push-ups, to more demanding exercises like mountain climbers, diamond push-ups, and of course, burpees.


After you pick a workout, you can choose how long you want to exercise for.

Sworkit

You can time it to match the length of a podcast, TV show, or album.

A show you really want to watch isn’t the best option, as it’s hard to follow all the on-screen action while you’re doing push-ups, burpees, and whatever other activities the program throws your way.

The ACSM review notes that a 30-minute workout on the app works well, with enough intensity and activity for a good session.


You can also tweak the amount of time between exercises.

SworkitSome of these customisation options are locked here because this writer was using a free version of the app.

Ten seconds before you finish each exercise, the voice of your “trainer” will tell you what you’ll be transitioning to next.

It’s helpful to have a small buffer to move into position for your next exercise – the default time in between is five seconds, which works well.

You can generally customise the length of exercise intervals and rest breaks that you get as well.


Each exercise comes with an animation that shows you exactly how to perform it, which comes in handy since proper form is essential.

Sworkit

In the strength section, you do each exercise for 30 seconds before transitioning to the next one.

There are multiple varieties of push-ups, planks, and squats that you’ll regularly encounter. Animations show exactly what you should be doing so you aren’t left searching for an explanation when you hear “Spiderman push-ups.”

After five exercises (or 2 1/2 minutes), you’ll get a 30-second break.


There’s a good variety of exercises, some easier or harder than others.

Sworkit

Randomization keeps it interesting, though you’ll sometimes hit a hard set, with burpees followed by diamond push-ups or something along those lines.

The 2015 review said the variation of exercises contained within Sworkit was a particular strength of the app. Research has shown that variety is important for fitness, as becoming accustomed to a particular training routine can make people more likely to plateau. Additionally, researchers have shown that people are more likely to stick with a varied workout routine than one that includes the same plan all the time.

The review also notes, however, that some of Sworkit’s exercises may be too difficult for beginners and that some recommended activities, like plyometric jump squats, may not be safe for beginners.


From the home screen, you can select the “My Sworkit” tab to see your recent progress.

Sworkit

In the settings options, you can also connect the app to Apple’s Health app, Strava, or MyFitnessPal to track workouts.

You can also set goals or reminders and look at breakdowns of the workouts you’ve been doing.


You can also search for, create, and save custom workouts.

Sworkit

Custom workouts allow you to set up routines however works best for you.

Some sport-specific ones we’ve found include workouts for soccer players, snowboarders, or surfers.


The exercise list, which you can use to create a custom workout, is impressive.

Sworkit

There’s a long list of different activities you can include in any custom workout, including segments from cardio, strength, yoga, or stretching routines.

You can filter by type of activity, exercise category, and other options. When taking a look at individual exercises in the list, you can see how they’re done, which muscles they work, and even how loud they are, which can be helpful if you live in an apartment building.


Other sections of the app, like the cardio section, work similarly to the strength workouts.

SworkitSome of these workouts are locked here because this writer was using a free version of the app.

To meet fitness guidelines, you should do about 30 minutes of exercise a day, with two strength days and five days of at least moderate cardio exercise – though you can get by with less, if you work out at a higher intensity.

It’s pretty easy to work hard enough to use these training programs as a sort of high-intensity interval training program, and there are even custom workouts set up to be used that way.


The yoga section includes a few different sequences, including a sun salutation and an everyday option.

SworkitSome of these workouts are locked here because this writer was using a free version of the app.

A caveat here is that learning the proper position for yoga poses is important. An app can’t correct your posture the way a teacher can if you are doing something that’s likely to lead to an injury – and yoga injuries can be serious.

Still, these particular routines are not incredibly demanding – they feel good but don’t push as hard as some of the strength-training drills.


There’s a similar variety of stretching routines.

SworkitSome of these workouts are locked here because this writer was using a free version of the app.

Flexibility is an important and often neglected aspect of fitness, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.

These routines can be a solid warmup or a good option for a day you are feeling sore. They’re also a nice way to start your morning.


While the app is a great option to have, don’t make it the only part of your exercise regimen.

Sworkit

Through an app like Sworkit, you can get a good set of activities that should help you fit workouts into your routine, but you may not want to rely on it as your only form of exercise.

There are good reasons to do other activities too. Running comes with a huge number of health benefits, for example. The strength exercises you can do as part of a bodyweight routine like Sworkit are great, but at a certain point, to further strengthen muscles and bones, you may need more resistance, as you get from weights.

Still, I’ve found that having a well-defined routine with some variety that you can do at home is invaluable. And since I know it’s easy to do, it makes it hard to skip a workout, even if I can’t leave the apartment.

It’s a useful part of a fitness plan, even if it isn’t a complete plan itself.

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