Although technology isn’t an essential part of exercising, the best workout apps can help you maintain your motivation as you’re making long-term lifestyle changes. That’s crucial, because changing your daily routine can be incredibly difficult.
We decided to evaluate a few of the most popular workout apps available for iOS and Android devices. Here’s what you need to know before using a fitness app to improve your workout habits—and a few app recommendations for different types of fitness goals.
Why Goals Matter When Choosing a Workout App
Before we start running through best workout apps, we’ve got to make an important point: Unless you set clear, attainable goals, you probably won’t have much success, regardless of which fitness app you download.
Adopting a new workout routine is a major lifestyle change, and lifestyle changes require goal setting. We’re not making that up—hundreds of studies have shown that goal setting increases motivation and improves chances of success. That’s crucial, because you need motivation to establish a routine.
If you’re able to establish a healthy habit (for instance, going to the gym every day) your brain changes its structure to adjust for the new habit. That process starts with setting clear, achievable goals, and workout apps can help along the way.
If you need more proof, ask someone who’s been through an intense, long-term fitness journey.
“I think when anyone is trying to make a change, we get overwhelmed with the possibilities of how much change we want to make, as opposed to taking one simple step,” Danni Allen tells HealthyWay.
Allen, who was the winner of 2013’s Biggest Loser and is currently a marketing director for Planet Fitness in Chicago, shares that “The one thing I wish someone would’ve helped me out with in the beginning is it really does start with making one decision and one step. Everyone wants to make a lot of changes [at once], but when you start with one, and then you add another—before you know it you’re reaching new goals that you never even planned for.”
We swear we didn’t tell her to say that.
With that said, we’d recommend taking a few moments to set some goals. Whether you’re trying to work out more often, manage your diet, or push your strength-training regimen to the next level, setting your goals will help you identify the features that are important to your journey.
Evaluating the Most Popular Workout Apps
Taking all of that into consideration, we looked at a few of the most popular fitness apps. While there’s no perfect option for everyone, these apps have some innovative features that could help you stay motivated. Plus, they’re free—at first.
Fitbit — Best All-Around Workout App for Changing Fitness Habits
Fitbit, of course, produces the most popular step-tracking devices on the market, but their software is just as much of a draw as their hardware.
The Fitbit app allows you to track a variety of workouts, log meals, and engage in challenges with other Fitbit users from around the world. The challenges are especially fun and effective. Research shows that competition is often a better motivator than praise, and Fitbit actively encourages you to issue a challenge to a friend or coworker.
Even if you’re not a competitive person, the simple daily step goals can be compelling.
“If I don’t hit my 10,000 steps in a day, I don’t care how cold it is, I go for a walk,” Allen tells HealthyWay. “I know I need to do that to keep myself accountable.”
That accountability is a powerful motivator, provided that you’re into the idea of tracking steps. Otherwise, you’ll quickly notice that the Fitbit app isn’t exactly versatile. While you can use the app to track non-cardio workouts, it’s not really designed for that purpose, and to get any sort of guided workouts, you’ll have to pay extra for Fitbit Coach ($39.99 per year). Also, while you don’t have to buy an actual Fitbit watch to use its fitness app, you’ll miss out on some of the app’s best features (such as the heart rate monitor) if you forgo the tracker.
Those issues aside, Fitbit offers one of the cleanest total fitness apps available. If you’re considering a step tracker, this app might be good enough to push you over the edge—and that’s certainly how it’s designed.
Free, although you’ll probably want to buy a fitness tracker.
You enjoy setting daily step goals, you’re looking for a total-health app, and you’ve got friends with Fitbits.
MyFitnessPal — Best App for Counting Calories
Perennially one of the most popular total fitness apps, MyFitnessPal is more focused on diet than exercise. It keeps an ongoing calorie count, and you can use its built-in calculator to set an attainable daily caloric goal (although it’s best to speak with a physician or dietitian before making significant changes to your diet). You can scan barcodes to easily log foods or choose from thousands of options in the app’s database.
Logging workouts in MyFitnessPal is easy, if a bit simplistic. You can choose from a number of activities, then enter the time you spent exercising. The app updates your goal to reflect the burned calories.
That’s pretty much it, but if you’re counting calories, you’ll appreciate the app’s detailed nutritional breakdowns and not-so-detailed calorie counter. Hey, simple goals are generally better. And if you’re just trying to lose or gain weight, MyFitnessPal gets the job done and doesn’t pack on unnecessary extras. It also has a large online community, which can be quite helpful if you’re struggling to stay motivated.
Free. For more detailed statistics—and to get rid of ads—you’ll need to pay $9.99 per month or $49.99 per year.
You’re trying to manage your weight or track nutrition. MyFitnessPal is intuitive and easy to use, but it won’t guide your workouts or drive you toward exercise goals, so you’ll probably need to complement it with a separate workout app.
MapMyFitness — Best Workout App for Tracking Outdoor Exercises
One of the first GPS workout tracking apps, MapMyFitness remains one of the simplest (and one of the best). It allows you to track mileage for runs, walks, bike rides, hikes, and anything else outdoors.
Log in online and you’ll be able to view your past workouts along with information about speed, pace, elevation, and calories burned. There’s also a great MapMyFitness community, so if you’re looking for a running buddy, here’s a good place to start.
If you spend most of your exercise at the gym, however, MapMyFitness falls flat. You can manually enter workouts, but other apps offer a much better set of tools designed for that purpose.
Free. Premium subscriptions unlock additional features, including unlimited mapped routes, for $5.99 per month or $29.99 per year.
You set single-workout goals, you’re a cardio addict, and you need a simple, no-frills way to track your outdoor workouts.
Strava — Best Workout App for Getting Competitive
Strava is another cardio app, but if you’re competitive, it’s an absolute must-download. It sets itself apart from other GPS workout apps with its “Segments” feature, which records the fastest times for set routes. You can race yourself to try to beat your best time, or you can take on the sizable Strava community to become Queen or King of the Mountain (QOM or KOM for short).
This fitness app also offers virtual clubs, so you can find like-minded cyclists or runners near you. Strava records data from your Fitbit, Garmin watch, or just about any other well-known smartwatch, but if you’re not wearing a tracker, you’ll still get to see some fairly detailed statistics about each workout.
As with Map My Fitness, Strava’s biggest drawback is that it’s designed specifically for outdoor exercise. But that’s not much of a drawback if you love nothing more than hitting the trails, and the premium features are well worth the expense.
Free. You can pay $7.99/month or $59.99/year for a premium membership, which gives you access to more detailed statistics and more powerful fitness tracking tools.
You prefer exercising outdoors and you’re motivated by competition.
Sworkit — Best Workout App for Finding New Exercises
Sworkit offers a variety of video-guided workout plans that take users through stretches, bodyweight exercises, yoga, and more. You tell the app whether you want to get stronger or leaner, choose an amount of time for your workout, then follow a playlist of videos (in the free version, your options are limited and you don’t get access to full training plans). Premium Sworkit members can also consult with personal trainers.
Although Sworkit is a bit simplistic for dedicated gym rats, it’s a good app for getting in five minutes of exercise on your work breaks. The videos are clean, simple, and easy to follow, and it’s oddly addictive.
Free, but to really get the most from the app, you’ll have to pay for the premium version. That costs $29.99 for three months, $79.99 for a year, or $297 for lifetime access.
You enjoy variety in your workouts or you want access to guided bodyweight exercises that you can perform anywhere.
Keelo – Best Workout App for Punishing, High Intensity Workouts
Keelo is another workout guidance app, but it’s slightly more robust (and dare we say challenging) than Sworkit. It uses the high-intensity interval training (HIIT) approach to deliver big results—and demanding, difficult workouts. If you’re a CrossFitter, you’ll know what you’re getting into.
One significant disadvantage: Keelo is only available in the Apple Store, so Android users are out of luck for the time being. We also wouldn’t recommend this app for beginners; if you’re taking on high-intensity workouts, you should know what you’re doing or have guidance from a personal trainer.
Free, but upgrading to the premium version will cost $11.99 per month, $29.99 per three months, or $69.99 per year.
You’re motivated by achievement and you love overcoming difficult workouts.
Charity Miles – Best App if You’re Motivated by Giving Back
Make each movement count with Charity Miles. This altruistic app functions like a pedometer or cycling meter, enabling its users to track their total distance traveled with start and stop functions. The more you walk, run, or cycle, the more money the apps’ sponsors (such as Johnson & Johnson) will donate to the charity of your choice.
That’s right, Charity Miles has more than 30 charities—from the ASPCA to the Wounded Warrior Project—for its users to choose from. After each sweat session, you’re able to see your total distance traveled and how much money you’ve earned for the charity of your choice.
The app also offers a Team feature, through which you can combine your distance with your friends and family to see how much money you can earn as a collective. For an added boost of motivation, the Charity Miles app includes a podcast that offers insights on overcoming adversity and other topics that many current users find encouraging to listen to during their workouts.
You enjoy running, walking, or cycling and you’re looking for a way to make a difference in the lives of others while taking strides to benefit your personal health.
What the Best Workout Apps Can (and Can’t) Do
So which workout app is the right one for you? And should you even use your smartphone while exercising? That really depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.
“I think with the way modern tech has helped us advance, [apps] can only help you get to your goals quicker or understand them better,” Allen says. “They allow you to explore and find more opportunities to be successful instead of just following something you heard from a friend or a fellow fitness fanatic. It opens up that many more opportunities.”
But even the best workout app isn’t a replacement for a personal trainer. A workout app can’t study your form, warn about nutritional deficiencies, or tell you to slow down when you’re overexerting yourself. Those are important considerations to keep in mind.
Take fitness apps’ suggestions with a grain of salt, especially if you’re trying to manage your weight. If you’re making major lifestyle changes, speak with your doctor or dietitian to be sure that you’re pursuing a healthy course of action.
Otherwise, have fun—the best workout apps can really enhance your training, even if they can’t quite do everything for you.