How The Crowd Can Provide Affordable Exercise Plans

As chronic conditions take up ever greater proportions of healthcare spending, the need to shift towards more preventative care is clear.  Services to help people to exercise more are therefore likely to be crucial.

Whilst personal trainers have obvious appeal, they are also expensive and therefore out of reach to many.  At the opposite end of the spectrum are the various generic workout apps or programs available cheaply online that don’t really hit the spot.  A team of researchers from Washington University developed a new alternative, called CrowdFit, that relies on crowdsourcing to help deliver tailored, yet affordable exercise support.

The progress made by the platform was documented in a recently published paper, and reveals that the exercise plans created by the non-expert ‘crowd’ were easily comparable to those created by professional experts.  What’s more, the CrowdFit platform improved the quality of the plans created by these non-experts because of the functionality of the platform.

Customized plans

“Most apps available to the public offer limited ability to customize an exercise plan — criteria like goals, age and weight,” the researchers say. “With CrowdFit, we designed greater flexibility to customize exercise plans to a user’s schedule, constraints and nuanced preferences.”

Users create a profile on the app, complete with their work schedule, interests and exercise preferences.  The crowd then create a week-long exercise plan for that person using guidelines created by CrowdFit.  This plan is then crafted onto the schedule of the user, complete with suggestions around when to exercise, why that particular form of exercise is good and various other bits of information to keep them on track.  At the end of the week, feedback is given, and the ‘planner’ then creates a 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,” the team say. “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.”

The paper describes how CrowdFit was tested on a group of 46 volunteers who were divided into three groups.  Each of these groups received a customized exercise plan.  The first group had plans produced by non-experts who used CrowdFit to create them.  The second group received plans from professional personal trainers who were using Google Docs to view the users profile information and create their exercise plans, whilst the final group were non-experts using the same approach.  Each subject then followed the plans for a couple of weeks.

At the end of the testing period, each user was interview, whilst exercise scientists evaluated the plan they’d been given.  It turned out that the non-expert plans were as effective as those produced by the personal trainers.  They were as well tailored to individual needs, had an appropriate level of intensity and duration, and a good balance between strength and aerobic activities.  The plans created by non-experts were also easier to understand by the user.

“Our study has demonstrated that nonexperts can be guided through designing an exercise plan that is consistent with national recommendations,” the researchers say. “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.”

Suffice to say, the results were achieved with a relatively small number of users, but nonetheless do provide an interesting insight into how health and wellbeing could be supported in a cost-effective manner.