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Can crowdsourced workout plans rival personal trainers?

A new platform crowdsources workouts from non-experts to create exercise regiments that align with national recommendations and suit the user’s schedule and interests.

Its creators aimed to alleviate two difficulties with starting to exercise: the high cost of personal trainers and the low quality of existing free or low-cost exercise planning options.

“Most apps available to the public offer limited ability to customize an exercise plan—criteria like goals, age, and weight,” says lead author Elena Agapie, a doctoral student in the department of human centered design and engineering at the University of Washington. “With CrowdFit, we designed greater flexibility to customize exercise plans to a user’s schedule, constraints, and nuanced preferences.”

crowdfit screenshot - workout plan
A portion of a CrowdFit user’s profile. (Credit: U. Washington)

Through CrowdFit, a person who wants an exercise plan creates a personal profile on the app, listing information such as daily work schedule, interests, and exercise preferences. A non-expert then uses the profile—as well as exercise and health guidelines provided by CrowdFit—to craft a week-long exercise plan for the user.

In the app, the plan appears as a detailed schedule, including suggestions for when to exercise, justification for the exercise choices, and other information to both encourage the user and help him or her execute the plan correctly. At the end of the week, the user provides feedback, and the planner crafts an updated schedule for the next week.

“We previously saw that people can craft plans for others that are challenging and interesting, but also had shortcomings with respect to exercise science,” says senior author Sean Munson, assistant professor of human centered design and engineering. “In this study, we set out to test whether supporting planners with information on exercise science and feedback from users could help them produce plans that are also high-quality in this respect.”

“By involving non-experts in the process, there’s also an opportunity to increase these non-experts’ exercise knowledge, ultimately benefiting not just the users, but also the planners,” says coauthor Gary Hsieh, associate professor of human centered design and engineering.

Exercise plans

In a field evaluation, non-experts were able to create exercise plans as effective as those of experts under certain conditions. In addition, CrowdFit improved the quality of exercise plans non-experts created. Compared to non-expert exercise programs prepared via Google Docs, non-expert plans created using CrowdFit featured more appropriate levels of exercise for each user, a better progression of activities from week to week, more appropriate strengthening routines, and better compositions.

The researchers tested CrowdFit in a study of 46 subjects divided into three groups, each of which received a customized exercise plan based on a CrowdFit profile. Subjects in the first group received exercise plans crafted by non-experts—volunteers who lacked the formal education and expertise of a personal trainer—using CrowdFit, which also contains information on exercise guidelines. The second group received exercise plans personal trainers created using Google Docs to view the users’ profile information and deliver their plans. The final group received exercise plans non-experts crafted, again using profile information and plan delivery via Google Docs. Subjects followed their plans for one to two weeks.

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Researchers interviewed the users after they had completed the study, and had exercise scientists evaluate each plan.

Overall, the exercise plans non-experts created were as effective as expert-prepared plans based on:

  • How well they were tailored to individual needs
  • The appropriateness of the intensity and duration of aerobic activity
  • The balance between aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities

In addition, the CrowdFit plans non-experts crafted tended to be as effective as the plans professional trainers crafted, especially for features such as incorporating basic exercise principles, creating plans that were compatible with user preferences and schedules, and incorporating sufficient aerobic activity.

CrowdFit plans also were easier to understand than expert plans and met recommended exercise guidelines.

Future app design

“Our study has demonstrated that non-experts can be guided through designing an exercise plan that is consistent with national recommendations,” says coauthor Molly Welsh, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Seattle University. “There may not yet be a substitute for a trainer prompting a person through a routine on the gym floor, but the role of the expert is expanding to become more collaborative with the tech industry in guiding future design choices of apps.”

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The researchers also found areas where CrowdFit performance could improve, such as including more exercises to improve flexibility and encouraging warm-ups and cool-downs during workouts. Future versions of CrowdFit could incorporate more detailed guidelines for plan creators.

“We hope that tools like this will contribute to a common goal: to increase the adoption of lifelong exercise by all,” says Welsh.

The National Science Foundation funded the work. The team presented a paper on their work April 25 at the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Montreal.

Source: University of Washington

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