apps

Why Personal Trainers May Not Be Immune from Automation

"Most of us would rather learn from and work with a robot," claims one fitness expert.

Oliver Lee Bateman

Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, California in 2012. Image: Nicholas Deleon

On a recent episode of the Fitcast podcast, guest Steven Ledbetter made a bold assertion: most people who were interested in getting fit were buying health monitors and downloading fitness apps rather than joining gyms.

Ledbetter, the CEO of the motivational coaching service company Habitry, characterized this state of affairs as nothing short of an "app-pocalypse." "People are investing in products rather than services," he told Motherboard, noting that a billion-plus fitness app downloads far exceeds the number of individuals looking to join gyms or hire personal trainers. "The already underpaid trainers at big globo-gyms like LA Fitness are in real trouble, once companies collect the data needed to develop apps that can effectively program workouts and motivate clients. I hate to say this, since I'm a coach, but one-on-one coaching is inefficient; most of us would rather learn from and work with a robot."

Taken at face value, Ledbetter's prediction may lead one to believe that the personal training industry, like so many others, is on the cusp of total Uberization. But trainers at elite facilities doubt that their own jobs are at risk, given the many subtle adjustments in technique and volume that serious trainees must make from workout to workout. "If you need results, you hire a real live pro," personal trainer Jason Strong told Motherboard. "Top gyms look to schools with great exercise science and kinesiology programs for recruits, and my own company, Equinox, works closely with UCLA regarding research in physiology and nutrition."

Anthony Roberts, a fitness journalist and co-author of Anabolic Steroids: Ultimate Research Guide, has followed the industry for two decades and heard more than his fair share of exaggerated claims. "Personal training will always be around," he said, "and having access to online information is no different than a decade ago, when you could pick up a bodybuilding magazine on the newsstand. When Muscle & Fitness published a 12 week beginners routine, nobody said 'welp, I guess nobody needs a personal trainer anymore…'"

Instead, Roberts believes that most apps and other online training aids will continue to operate in a complementary manner, even as their reach becomes ever more widespread. "I don't know if apps are making a huge difference in terms of giving people a workout to follow or whatever. I don't see that trending. It's not going to be automated like that. But online training has already far surpassed in-person training for all but specialty areas. CrossFit brags about being open source, and they post a daily workout - anyone can go to the main site and follow it. Lots of people do that."

Daniel Thomas, a trainer at CrossFit Thames, also doesn't see personal training ever becoming fully automated, in the manner of a driverless Uber vehicle. "When I see the phrase 'Uberize,' I'm thinking more of an an on-demand service," he told Motherboard. "A lot of personal training programming and nutrition programming from what I've seen is being done remotely. An app like TruBe or UrbanMassage lets you request a service on demand, for personal training or massage—which is fine as long as the trainers and therapists are experienced."

Both Anthony Roberts and Jason Strong cautioned that a truly "Uberized" fitness program would have to address many possible problems, such as the continuity of trainers. An individual couldn't simply request a random trainer each day of the week, as they might an Uber driver, and expect to make progressive improvements or receive accurate assessments (Working Against Gravity, one of the fastest-growing Uber-style services with weekly check-ins and 24/7 coaching support, attempts to address all of this). "The biggest place I've actually seen the Uberizing is in meal prep," Roberts said. "People are getting all of their weekly meals delivered now. They can get to work on Monday, and before noon, someone brings them a week's worth of lunches."

Steven Ledbetter is confident that new and improved apps will bring fitness know-how to those tens of millions of Americans who are not among the nation's two million exercise enthusiasts. Nevertheless, fitness app creators are facing an uphill battle: many of the past century's fitness crazes, from jogging to bodybuilding, have marketed themselves via widely disseminated do-it-yourself publications and peripherals that ultimately had little lasting impact. Similarly, many of today's one-size-fits-all apps fail to make appropriate use the best practices in behavior change theory. In fact, the only area that has witnessed truly exceptional, sustained growth is the market for selling exercise apparel—today dubbed "athleisure," and an essential part of many millennial wardrobes—to a relatively sedentary population.

Therein lies the solution, Ledbetter contends. "Once data-collecting companies like Google can get properly-designed automated coaching inside the clothing—and look, Nike has already partnered with Apple, which also specializes in data collection, so this is underway—we're going to see some major changes in how the majority of the population works out, especially among that large class of people who don't already go to gyms."