With the onset of apps, bands, bits, and other fitness-tracking devices, our profession is changing. But building human connections is still key. Here’s how to perfectly marry tech with real-life training.

Remember when the only competition you had to worry about was a new gym opening down the road? Today, trainers around the world are moving into your neighbourhood via the Internet, and fitness-tracking devices and apps are making it possible for everyone to carry a “coach” in their pocket or on their wrist.

“Trainers often dismiss technology because it’s threatening,” says Ian Palombo, MA, NASM-CPT, a sport psychology consultant and strength and conditioning coach. “But you’re dismissing something clients may find motivating, which isn’t good for your relationship.”

“People love technology and gadgets, so we would be stupid not to play in this space,” adds Leslie Ann Quillen, NASM-CPT, and fat-loss nutrition coach. “At the same time, we have to be confident about what we bring to the table. There isn’t any app or device that’s a match for a trainer who’s real, who cares, who’s knowledgeable, and who brings their personality to the training environment.”

So it’s not just a Wi-Fi connection that’s needed these days; a human connection is also necessary. Here are five tips for strengthening both (and profiting from it).

1. DO A TECH CHECK
Some people respond to technology better than others. Quillen “tests” potential clients during their initial consult. “If they say, ‘I’m too busy to eat breakfast,’ I’ll say, ‘Well, what if I give you a protein smoothie recipe you can throw together in two minutes?’ ” Then, using an app such as Over or InstaQuote to add captions to pictures, Quillen immediately texts them the recipe and a photo. “If I get a good reaction, I know they like to be educated that way,” she says.

Younger people, in particular, respond well to tech, from wearable fitness trackers such as Nike’s FuelBand, which is seen as a status symbol, to creative apps such as Zombies, Run!, which uses the undead to encourage faster workouts. But it’s a mistake to assume that older, more sedentary folks won’t be interested. “My dad hadn’t exercised in years,” says Palombo, “but he loves technology, so we bought him a Fitbit. It motivated him to finally get moving.”

2. LOCK IN THE DATA
Quillen encourages weight-loss clients to use an app called MyFitnessPal, a food-and-exercise diary that makes recording calories-in and calories-out easy. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken client measurements and they lost them, or they forget what they had for lunch or what they weighed that morning,” she says. “Storing all this data eliminates that problem, so I can go in anytime and troubleshoot.”

3. EMPHASISE EXPERT OVERSIGHT
If you don’t know what you’re doing, virtual training is virtually worthless. Make sure clients understand that. Caution them about three things:

  • While it’s great to download a high-intensity 30-minute workout, if your muscle balance or alignment are off (e.g., underactive core, external rotation of feet, etc.), injury can result. It takes ongoing instruction from a properly trained professional to avoid injury.
  • Movement trackers must be programmed correctly and, even then, they can provide wrong information. “I’ve heard stories of people sitting in rocking chairs and having their device record 2,000 steps,” says Quillen.
  • Palombo, who is also a therapist at an eating-disorder centre, sees evidence of this among individuals who obsessively track their exercise and calories and eventually get injured, overtrained, or, in some cases, sick. A trainer’s job is to be the voice of reason and help individuals use technology in a healthy way.

4. SHOW YOUR VALUE
For those who can’t afford personal training, a mobile app or fitness tracker, even with its limitations, can be useful. But if someone insists that technology can replace a real-life trainer, give them the Two-Week Challenge. Agree on some specific goals, then let their device be the coach for 14 days. Get together after that, discuss any progress, and deliver your plan. “Two weeks later, when you compare the results, it’ll be obvious you know something the device doesn’t,” says Quillen.” True body changes don’t come from tracking numbers.”

5. BUILD COMMUNITY
Quillen created a Facebook page for her clients, where they can share recipes, experiences, success stories, and advice. “It’s just like a group of girlfriends going to the gym together,” she explains. “They love it, and I interact with them there. You can’t be their trainer 24/7, but you can make them feel like you’re accessible and show them what you can offer that no device can.”

By National Academy of Sports Medicine