- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Surfing the Web can be good for one’s body. Really.

Online fitness sites are all over the Web, offering new wrinkles to the age-old problem of getting in, and staying in, shape.

Sites such as www.ofitness.com, fitlinxx.com, plus plans based around fitness celebrities like Jillian Michaels and Denise Austin promise tighter buns and thinner waists.

But not all online plans are created equal, and no matter how dazzling the site, Web surfers still have to hit the gym or lug the weight bench out of storage to make it work.

Cindi Rauert, a health promotion specialist with Providence Hospital in Northeast, says today’s online fitness sites are more sophisticated than past models.

“It’s really becoming more popular with podcasts. The younger generation is getting into them,” Ms. Rauert says.

Such plans help those who can’t afford a personal trainer but want more information about exercise than they can find via a quick Web search.

“People are motivated in different ways,” she says. “Some people want to preserve their anonymity or just don’t like the gym environment.”

Others might prefer a stern e-mail than seeing their trainer’s face fall when they tell them they missed a workout.

“Your average person in the work force might be inspired by it,” Ms. Rauert says. “They’re used to getting their office e-mail. They’re used to motivational messages.”

These Web sites can provide users with a number of helpful tools, from specific exercises to targeting various muscle groups to meals tailor-made for those looking to lose weight.

Just beware of sites that promise too much too soon, Ms. Rauert says.

“Some plans offer weight management. I would be a little cautious of the ones which promise drastic changes, especially if they’re promoting their own products,” says Ms. Rauert, who recommends trying the free site www.fitday.com for those curious about these plans.

Cedric Bryant, the chief science officer with the nonprofit American Council on Exercise, says people should make sure a site has some simple elements before signing up.

No matter how enriching a site may be, it won’t help someone unless it allows for quick access.

“Make sure the site is easy to navigate,” he says.

The first essential element from a fitness perspective is the qualifications of the trainers behind the site, Mr. Bryant says.

“What is their educational training and background? What certifications do they hold?” he asks.

“You also want to see what types of information they obtain from you,” Mr. Bryant says. “Make sure they take a realistic assessment of who you are, your family history and prior fitness experience to devise a program which meets your unique needs.”

A quality fitness site should feature bulletin boards so fellow fitness buffs can support one another, he says. They also should include contact information and a library of video clips of athletes performing complicated movements.

Not all plans are created equal.

“There are a fair number of what I call ‘sketchy’ plans, which provide cookie-cutter information,” he says. “Some will try to sell programs that encourage people to buy a particular supplement. That would be a red flag.”

Jillian Michaels, a fitness expert and former trainer on NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” says it’s only natural for people to seek out advice via the computer.

“People aren’t digesting their media through the TV anymore. That’s how you access most people,” Ms. Michaels says of www.jillianmichaels.com.

When she created her Web site, she made sure it reflected her approach to wellness. That meant strict attention to the number, and kind, of calories taken in.

“I have a quiz on the site that deciphers how many carbs, how much fat will make them feel full,” she says, adding she designed the workouts on the site personally.

The site’s bulletin boards also allow visitors to shape the site request by request, she says.

The visitors also talk to each other online.

“They help each other, support each other, make each other accountable,” says Miss Michaels, whose site costs $3 a week.

Olivia Sheldon, a fitness expert and yoga instructor based in Alexandria, says her clients occasionally mention such fitness plans to her.

She remains skeptical about how helpful they can be.

“It’s never going to be as accurate as somebody like a trainer doing an assessment,” Ms. Sheldon says, adding working out alone can lead to more injuries.

That said, too many Washingtonians don’t have time to hit the gym or hire a trainer.

“It’s more motivating to be around somebody. You’ll have longtime results. But something’s always better than nothing,” she says. “It could get somebody into an exercise program.”

Ms. Rauert says research shows people who monitor their workout progress more often stick to their routines, and online fitness sites can help track those efforts. Any kind of online journal can mean the difference between success and failure.

With many of these sites, “you have to accurately report what you’re eating. That’s a great way to start,” she says.

Ms. Michaels understands some users might submit false entries into a site, but they can just as easily lie to their trainer.

“I busted one client buying ice cream in the supermarket,” Ms. Michaels says.

The buff trainer recalls helping a client successfully lose weight via e-mail instructions, while another didn’t lose a pound after working with Ms. Michaels one-on-one.

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got people standing over you or you’re coaching over e-mail,” she says. Success ultimately falls on the person, not the program.

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