Hybrid training (online training coupled with face-to-face training) is often the perfect mix for those clients who prefer the conveniences of the Web yet require the guidance of a live trainer. New Web-based social networking platforms exist that can help trainers develop more hybrid programming.

When you think of MySpace or Facebook, you think of online social communities where members are able to create profiles, connect with friends, join interest groups and contribute to forum discussions. But lately we are seeing niche networks evolve, some specifically launching with health- and fitness-related themes. In addition to offering the features of a regular online social community, these fitness networks allow members to set individual health goals, design workouts, track weight loss, log food intake, keep wellness blogs and access educational resources.

People of all fitness levels and in various stages of behavior change are gravitating to these networks hoping to find the motivation and online community support needed to reach their health goals. The networking sites are popular because most are free to join and easy to use, even for the least Internet-savvy. But it seems site use on its own may not be enough to create adequate behavior change in people; most who sign up abandon their profiles after a few weeks. What if personal trainers coupled these sites with face-to-face training? (Or what if the network members coupled their online activities with assistance from personal trainers?)

For the past few months I have spent time in these networks—making various “buddies,” creating sample health goals, experimenting with exercise-tracking features—and I’ve come to realize that these sites offer more than just a place for people to log their fitness progress and connect to others with similar interests. I have discovered a space where personal trainers can also participate, helping their clients develop successful fitness programs and encouraging exercise adherence while adequately tracking overall performance. After much exploration, I have selected the five networks that offer the most functional training features for fitness professionals. Read on to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of each website and decide for yourself if there is a feature worth trying out with your clients.

FitLink (www.fitlink.com)

FitLink is a no-nonsense, no-frills network with an extensive online exercise database—great for stimulating new training ideas. Clients who are looking for workout buddies can use this network to find people based on how they like to be motivated, the type of workout intensity they prefer and what fitness facility they attend. Most online communities search members only by location.

Pros. Outdoor enthusiasts such as runners, walkers and cyclists can customize neighborhood routes with the mapping feature and then add the routes to their workout database. Client profiles can also be linked to local health clubs or gyms.

Cons. Although you can track the frequency and details of a workout, FitLink lacks features for tracking body measurements (weight, percent body fat, heart rate). This is a fitness-only site; it does not include any nutrition assessments or food journals.

Traineo (www.traineo.com)

Traineo is a network tailored to support weight loss goals. This site focuses on motivating members who are still developing their healthy habits. Tracking features allow members to log their workouts (e.g., “circuit training for 40 minutes”), but do not require listing specific exercises. This might be less overwhelming and more time-efficient for newer clients. Tracking features can also be customized to log other health behaviors, such as smoking, water intake and sleeping habits.

Pros. Traineo is ideal for the non-tech-savvy, newbie client starting a fitness program. It allows trainers to set their own profiles to “motivator” status and focus on developing the client-trainer relationship. For example, you can send clients a water bottle and attach a note from a selection of motivating comments, health tips or inspirational quotes.

Cons. In order to register a new fitness goal, members must include a goal weight and a goal date (even if a goal is not weight-loss related or time sensitive). Although members can input their daily calories, they are left to estimate caloric intake without a food diary or nutrition database.

Gyminee (www.gyminee.com)

Gyminee is the network that best simulates walking into a fitness facility. When users log in, they are instantly directed to their “locker room,” where they can review their workout and nutrition goals. The library of exercises contains video demonstrations of various movements that might prove useful for your clients in between sessions. A helpful feature for trainers is the ability to create and share workout programs; this is a great way to design a routine for a client who is out of town.

Pros. Tracking features are visually represented through charts and graphs. Trainers can follow client progress based on the letter grades they receive for their nutrition and exercise goals. Clients who forget to log in on a regular basis receive automatic reminders to stay on task.

Cons. Some features—such as meal plans and professionally designed workouts—are limited to paying members. Nutrition goals are estimated using measurements of height, weight and level of activity only. Diet recommendations are based on a 40%-30%-30% split of carbohydrates, proteins and fats, respectively—which may not be suitable for all clients. Trainers using this site’s nutrition tools for clients need to be mindful of scope-of-practice parameters.

SparkPeople (www.sparkpeople.com)

This is the one-stop shop for online health- and fitness-related activity. In particular, newbie clients who are starting a health program will find this site helpful. It has informational videos, discussion boards and interest groups that scope topics from fitness and nutrition to medical and lifestyle habits. A trademark feature is its SparkRecipes, filled with ideas for any meal on any occasion.

Pros. SparkPeople is one of the only sites to include activities of daily living on its list of cardio options. Given the duration of the activity, the site can estimate the caloric expenditure for heavy cleaning, painting or gardening. Also, the nutritional assessments and food diary features are exceptionally detailed.

Cons. Exercises have to be added manually after each session; they cannot be selected from a previous workout template. This might prove cumbersome over time. Navigation is overwhelming, not user-friendly. Trainers can view a client’s profile page but have no way of gathering information about the client’s food consumption or workout summary.

FitTracker is a feature of ShapeFit.com, and is great for those needing extensive tracking features. (Note: Click on the FitTracker link at the bottom of the ShapeFit.com home page or go directly to http://FitTracker.shapefit.com.) Trainers and clients can access various reports charting overall development in areas of nutrition, cardio and strength. As long as information on diet and
exercise is detailed and diligently reported, members can analyze progress over the course of training down to a specific exercise.

Pros. There is an entire section dedicated to Pilates, with a database of 90-plus moves coupled with photos and descriptions of how to execute them. Members can also create personal grocery lists and submit questions on various fitness and nutrition topics.

Cons. The site lacks any real sense of community. There are no discussion forums or interest groups that clients can join. Informational articles and videos are limited.

In the final analysis, these networks may not have been intentionally designed for exclusive client-trainer use, but personal trainers can employ them to supplement their services and enhance their relationships with clients. Although commercial Web-based software exists that might make hybrid training more convenient, these networks are not too far off in creating a similar experience. Best of all, it doesn’t cost the client or you any additional fees to use them! n