If you can't afford a personal trainer—or don't want one—there are a number of exercise and nutrition resources available on the Internet. For some, the convenience and social support of surfing for fitness guidance online can make it just as effective as working with a trainer in person. Here's a guide for how to use (and not to use) today's top online fitness tools.
1. Social Media
Benefits: Social networks like Facebook and Twitter make it easy to get quick fitness tips and news updates, and connect with peers who can offer support and accountability as you work toward your goals.
"People tend to stay with a program if they feel part of a community, and social media is the perfect vehicle for establishing this," says New York-based trainer Robert Brace. You can "check in" at the gym on Foursquare, a smart phone app that posts your whereabouts to your Facebook and Twitter profiles. Or you can tweet pictures of the healthy salad you made for lunch via apps like Flickr and Twitpic. With devices like the Nike+ SportBand, many are logging their running time and distance and broadcasting these from their social media profiles.
The caveat: While social networks can help you stay plugged in to your fitness program, most trainers say these shouldn't be your sole source of support. "The great part about social media is that it reaches the masses," says David Kirsch, a New York-based trainer who fires off daily tips via Twitter and Facebook. But therein also lies the downside, which he acknowledges. Most of what you get from social media is advice for the masses, but to be effective, a fitness routine should be tailored to your body and lifestyle, he says.
2. Online Fitness Communities
Benefits: Fitness-oriented websites and blogs, Tumblr and other online forums provide many of the same benefits as social media, yet with more space to share in-depth information. These resources have completely accelerated the learning curve, according to Brendan Hayden, co-director of Florida-based training and athletic performance facility Coastal Performance. "The average time it takes for a book to be published is around two years, which is a lifetime in our business," he says. "Often the trainer or coach who wrote the book is no longer even using the same concepts put forward in their publication!"
On the other hand, online fitness communities allow for up-to-the-minute education, Hayden says, as well as opportunities to personally interact with these trainers in online forums and email.
The caveat: While websites and blogs have advanced fitness education, they've also led to widespread distribution of misinformation. "Everyone now has a forum to post their ideas and it is incredibly difficult for the consumer to filter out what's legitimate and what is not," Hayden says.
Popular authors aren't necessarily the most credible fitness experts, Hayden adds. "There are literally hundreds of 'Internet experts' on fitness who have never even worked with a client." Legit experts should be credentialed by an industry-recognized association, such as the American Council on Exercise (ACE) or the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA).
Benefits: Wondering how to perform a burpee or lateral plank? When it comes to form, 140-character snippets (and even detailed written instructions) can leave the exercise beginner hanging. YouTube to the rescue: A search of its video database will often bring up hundreds of how-to clips demonstrating a type of exercise, along with narrated instruction.
YouTube also makes it possible to glean advice from esteemed fitness experts like New York-based yoga instructor Tara Stiles, who has uploaded more than 190 videos to her YouTube channel.
Smart phone users get the added bonus of being able to access YouTube videos anywhere, which is helpful if you're trying to identify an exercise or correct your form while, say, at the gym.
The caveat: While some YouTube channels, like Stiles', offer a progressive series of videos, most YouTube channels simply host a number of four- or five-minute clips showing single exercises. If you want to follow along with a continuous workout, you might be better off with a DVD.
Also, as with social media and online fitness communities, anyone can post YouTube videos. So stick with videos created by recognized fitness professionals.
4. e-book Programs
Benefits: To avoid the time and cost of publishing printed books, most fitness experts have started making their programs available digitally. Downloadable e-books offer the chance to buy programs from industry leaders you wouldn't otherwise be able to work with, such as Alwyn and Rachel Cosgrove's popular Afterburn weight loss program.
Many e-book programs are very comprehensive, covering proper form and breathing technique as well as ways to assess your fitness level and adjust your workout. You can also choose e-books that deliver highly specialized workout plans, such as weight loss for those who are obese and muscle-building for ectomorph body types (people who don't gain muscle easily).
e-books can be convenient due to their portability via handheld digital readers, and because you can set your own pace. Many contain printable worksheets and guides to help you stay focused.
The caveat: Because they aren't interactive and don't always include visuals, e-books tend to be more effective for people who are self-motivated and learn well by reading. Other users may lose interest or prefer a more engaging approach to establishing a workout regimen.
It's sometimes difficult to tell what content an e-book contains, or how easy it is to follow, until you've bought it. It pays to get recommendations from people who've followed the program or ask for a preview.
5. Online Personal Trainers
Benefits: "Nothing beats a trainer who understands your specific needs, movement patterns and how to motivate you," Brace says. Luckily you can still get inexpensive one-on-one help online. Many certified personal trainers offer exercise advice and support in real-time via email, Skype or their websites. And because they don't need to provide a facility or commute, they can offer their services at a lower rate.
An online trainer will typically have you send your "before" photos, weight and measurements, and will collect periodic updates to gauge your progress. They may also have you perform movements on webcam to assess your form.
Brace finds that people usually get the best results by building a relationship with a personal trainer over time. An online trainer can work with you to build a personalized exercise program and take into account health concerns and complex fitness challenges such as insulin resistance, which is often connected to obesity.
The caveat: Incomplete assessment and instruction are a breeding ground for injury, according to Hayden, who says "it's akin to a doctor writing a prescription or performing surgery without ever performing an examination." For some, communicating remotely rather than in person can be a challenge, so it's important to determine whether the format works for you and to choose an online trainer who will give you adequate attention. You should be able to discuss your goals, limitations and injuries with your online trainer—that's what you're paying for.
Chelsea Bush writes for AskFitnessCoach, a site that promotes a down-to-earth approach to fitness and weight loss.