Sometimes even the best of plans need a bit of supporting structure and technology to get you over the hump.

There are literally a plethora of books, videos, and DVD programs out there to help you get fit. Many, such as Tony Horton’s Power 90 Extreme (P90X®) and Shaun Thompson’s Insanity® (both marketed by Beachbody, LLC) are very intense programs that are designed for advanced fitness. Both are based on some of the principles of working with intense bursts of activities and changing them so that muscle memory doesn’t come into play, and increasing the percentage of protein-based calories in your diet, while lowering carbs and eliminating fat.

Both use complex exercises that are variations on basic resistance routines, and advertise that given only 20-30 minutes a day for 60-90 days will get you looking ripped – and that’s probably true if you’re able to go the extra mile. However, programs of this kind of intensity are not recommended for beginners. Many people who have started these without transitioning from an easier program may find themselves overwhelmed and might even give up before the designed period ends, and possibly give up exercising. That’s not a good thing at all.

When I began exercising, I did as much as I could as long as I could. Years later I have conditioned myself to be able to do 30-minute sessions of 600 pushups and 600 sit-ups in sets of 30 – far and away from the seven I did daily, let alone the 20 minutes in sets of 25. The point being: you shouldn’t expect to be able to make that kind of leap in 60-90 days when you haven’t done it before. I’m not saying these programs don’t work – I’m pretty sure they do. Just be aware that it may be too much to take on for those just starting out.

The point of an exercise program, any exercise program, is to be challenging, productive and enjoyable. The person training should want and have the drive to continue without feeling like they can’t continue, a month or two into a multi-week program. No one is going to go from being relatively unfit to looking like Charles Atlas in 90 days. Expectations (and tempering those expectations) play a big part of this.

Additional Resource: What’s the Difference Between Resistance Bands and Free Weights?

Stuff for Beginners

For early beginners looking for something to help you stay on track, I recommend something that emphasises the basics of exercise, and perhaps adds a little variety. For example, my first program was something I innocently took on after my wife bought a Nintendo® Wii™. They were advertising the Wii Fit™ series, which included a set of simple strength and yoga exercises (see table). It also included several games and other training exercises consistent with the theme of being a family-oriented video game.

The integration of yoga is novel for beginners and is something I still go back to occasionally. There once was a time when I could run through all of these poses without flinching. An on-screen indicator shows how much your center of balance is moving around, which serves as an excellent feedback mechanism. Admittedly, my balance has changed for the worse over the past few years, so doing something on one leg such as a “Tree” is quite a humourous challenge.

This illustrates Fit’s primary strength in that it is designed to operate around an electronic balance board. The board measures your weight as well as your balance and overall posture during exercises. It provides you feedback as you do them to know if you are favoring one side during pushups or planks, which is also quite useful.

Something a Bit More Advanced

In 2009, EA™ Sports developed the Active Personal Trainer series to enter the fitness market. It is no longer actively marketed but is still quite available for the Wii, Microsoft XBox 360®, and Sony Playstation® PS3™. On the Wii, it includes arm and leg sensors that measure body movement according to the various activities. The arm sensor also includes a heart rate monitor that measures intensity in order to calculate calorie burn. The XBox version uses its integrated Kinect sensors for body motion, but because of the space it requires it’s not feasible given the room I have available.

Like Wii Fit, Active encourages regular weight measurements in order to determine progress. It will additionally allow you to measure fitness progress, but in terms of heart recovery rate instead of balance. It does this by having you do relatively intense in-place runs or foot-fires, keeping track of your heart rate increase, then measure the time it takes for your heart to return to a normal rate after you’ve slowed or stopped.

The program also comes with a flat resistance band for certain arm-related exercises. For example, you step on the center of the band and curl your arms up holding the ends when doing hammer curls. The band they provide is about the equivalent of a 2# band and provides little challenge after a while. I prefer to use a 10# resistance band for most of the exercises that require it, with a 25# band specifically for reverse lunge/shoulder presses. Both the 10# and 25# resistance bands were bought separately from the local sports equipment shop.

What sets this program apart is the way it combines certain basic exercises that target upper body, core, or leg strength, cardio, or a combination of all of the above. There is also a good long list of pre-defined exercises to choose from. If you are looking for a pre-set program, it includes a short 3-week cardio kick-start, as well as a full 9-week program. The 9-week program starts easy and gradually becomes more intense and complicated as it progresses. It, like other advanced programs, cycles through upper, core, and leg exercises so you don’t rely on muscle memory as a crutch. It can be intense, but not so intense that you feel you can’t continue.

Another feature of the program is that you can have it develop and save a set of exercises to focus on specific body areas or to fit within an allowable time period. I have a set of upper/core exercises that I still use on strength days that was originally generated by the program, but modified to suit my needs (see table). This routine takes roughly 25′ to complete and burns around 125 calories. It makes a nice addition to other routines, or as a stand-alone routine when time is limited.

For leg days, between outdoor runs, I use a routine that is a combination of the built-in aerobics exercises. It includes a rotating series of marching, high-knee, kick, and leg curl steps that help stretch all of the running muscles and keep them tone. The aerobic movement is not all in one place, so your running stride also benefits.

For serious leg days I use the final workout (#36) in the 9-week program, which includes a wide variety of intense and fun exercises (see table) with a lot of lunge and squat jump-type exercises. This particular routine takes about 55′ and burns around 400 calories by itself.

EA used to provide a tracking server that complemented their Active programs. EA has since decommissioned that server (as of March of 2012), but the program itself is still 95% usable without it.

What’s Next?

As mentioned, there are plenty of these exercise programs out there in various forms. These are just the two that I have used, and continue to use or revisit on a regular basis. Both are well designed and suit the purpose for providing a structured but fun exercise environment for beginners, as well as for those that are slightly advanced.

If you are able to maintain your own regimen you could feasibly perform each of the routines without the benefit of having a game platform or DVD player available. All that you miss is the feedback that the sensors provide back to the program, which may help to regulate things.

But programs such as these, albeit somewhat dated by now are only a small part of the technology for fitness landscape. There are other, more recent developments in the area of devices and mobile applications that can assist you in the fitness journey, which we’ll discuss next week.

Last Week: Taking the Next Step to Losing Weight and Getting Fit.

Next Week: Technology to Help with Calorie Counting.