When I first began this project I was using a google docs spreadsheet to track my progress. While the spreadsheet served its purpose, it was tedious. It felt like work. And this made me dread the inevitable data entry task each day. I wasted a lot of time trying to come up with a front end that made it simpler to use, and looking for ways to generate relevant charts and graphs.
I should have figured that there were already quite a few sites that offered just that. The main ones that I’ve encountered are Sparkpeople, Traineo, and Daily Burn (formerly Gyminee). I’ve joined all three to try them out. All of them will get the job done, but they each have their own unique upsides and downsides.
This is the first thing you’ll see when you login to sparkpeople.
As you can see, there’s a lot to take in. For me, it’s a little overwhelming. There are so many topics competing for my attention that I don’t really know what’s most important.
Structured Meal Plans
Sparkpeople is the only one of the three sites to provide a detailed meal plan for free. Each day the site automatically selects a healthy breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack and you can even print a grocery list for the week. You are free to substitute any food in the plan for a similar one that you may prefer. Most of the foods are so simple that they don’t require a recipe, but for more complex meals there is an entire section of the site devoted to healthy recipes.
Just as it does with food, Sparkpeople automatically selects a workout routine for you. As with food, you can swap routines, or remove exercises that you don’t care for. Each exercise is accompanied by a demo button that takes you to a more detailed description of the exercise, and an animation demonstrating it. While it would be nicer if these instructions were inline, it is great that they’re available.
Spark people features community groups called Spark Teams that cover an astonishingly broad range of subjects. Do you suffer from anxiety and depression? Cheer up, there’s a spark team for you! Erectile dysfunction? Over to men’s health team my friend. Joined this week? I ended up in a team for people in their thirtysomethings with 25-49 pounds to lose. Now that is specific. Most of these communities appear to be active, with fresh posts just about everyday. If you’re interested in topics like “HELP!!! I’M OBSESSED with MY BOOBS!!!” you will find them here.
Just like Xbox achievements, you earn points for completing challenges. The points earn new trophies on your profile. They can also be spent to play a Wheel of Fortune type game where you can win T-shirts, water bottles, gift certificates, and stuff like that. You earn points by completing a wide variety of challenges, everything from posting a message to the forums to completing a fitness goal. It provides a good incentive
Not so Cool Stuff
The site uses a lot of custom terminology that I wasn’t familiar with. When I was setting up my account it asked me to choose three goals for my “Fast Break”. I didn’t have any idea what a Fast Break was, so I just picked three goals that seemed interesting and achievable. Turns out that Fast Break is the first stage of the Spark Diet. Pretty much everything on the site is saddled with the “Spark” branding; Spark Mail, Spark Team, Spark Points, Spark America… okay, we get it.
I found it difficult to find what I was looking for on the site. There are drop down menus overlapping other menus. Color coded zones that didn’t make any sense to me. A long sidebar full of data that I didn’t understand, or wasn’t relevant to what I was looking for. There is a ton of great content on this site, and I’m sure its difficult to organize it all. But I often found myself haplessly clicking around with no idea where I was going. I eventually switched to navigating purely by the search bar, which was pretty good at returning the page I was looking for.
Unlike Traineo and Daily Burn, Spark People does not appear to offer a premium service. Instead, all features are free to all users. This is great, but it comes at the cost of large intrusive advertisements. Most are relevant. Mostly food related. But for the most part they are animated, and often compete with the site’s graphics. Some people may not be bothered by this at all. But I’m easily distracted, and these ads made it difficult for me to concentrate.
Sort of Clunky
Throughout my experience with the site, I ran into little bugs and glitches. A few times while using the site I got the message that I was logged out, then after I hit the back button on the browser I was logged in again. The highlight on the search bar doesn’t line up correctly. The link text is different colors and formats all over the site. Sometimes links are underlined, sometimes not. Sometimes they’re orange, sometimes green, sometimes blue, and so on. I can be a bit of a design queen, so when little touches like these are overlooked, it lowers my opinion of the site as a whole. It may not bother you at all.
One Size Fits Most Spark Diet
Sparkpeople assumes that I want them to come up with a diet and exercise plan for me. It provides easy opt-out options, but then you’re left with an overcomplicated food and exercise tracker.
Overall Impression of Sparkpeople
If you want to improve your diet and exercise habits and don’t know where to start, Sparkpeople is a good resource. It’s not the most intuitve site in the world. You’ll have to learn to work with its quirks and make frequent use of the search bar. But if you stick with its 18 week program I imagine you would be well on your way to reaching your goals.
Here’s what you’ll see when you first log in to Traineo
It’s a nice clean interface that focuses on just the information I’m most interested in – my progress over time. The whole experience is very clean and straightforward. But as you can see, it doesn’t offer the richness of content that you’d get from Sparkpeople.
It Supports the Wii
Traineo is the only site of the three that has explicit support for the Wii. Wii is built into its activity tracker. Somehow without ever specifying which game you were playing, Traineo is able to generate a value for calories burned over time. But let’s not pick nits, this is a mainstream fitness site that includes Wii in its default workout tracker. That alone was reason to be very excited.
It Supports all Sorts of Crazy Activities
Beyond Wii, Traineo is also set up to track domestic activity, child care, vacuuming (distinct from domestic activity), and even the ancient art of Tae-Bo. You can pretty much find a way to convert whatever you’ve been doing throughout the day into a traineo activity and get some calorie burning affirmation out of it.
By default the site tracks weight, activity, and food. But you can add custom data to track by adding “logs”. It’s very simple, you just choose the thing you want to track, and then the unit you want to track it in (e.g. inches, pounds, fathoms, whatever). It then generates a graph over time just like it does for your weight. You can use this to watch your Wii Fit Age go down, track your heart rate, or just about anything else you’re interested in.
Not So Cool Stuff
Food Tracker is Too Simple
The food tracker doesn’t allow you to enter individual foods. It just presents a slider for calories and a slider for diet quality. While this is a very intuitive interface, it fails to give you the tools you need to calculate the number of calories you’ve eaten or the quality of your meals. That means you’ll need to do it manually in a notebook, spreadsheet, or another website. I found this really frustrating because I felt like the site was asking me to make a best guess, which isn’t the kind of tool I wanted.
Activity Tracker is Too Simple / Weird
The activity tracker lets you choose an activity, how long you did it for, and how difficult it was. Based on that it assigns the number of calories it thinks you burned. It’s not a bad system, some exercises don’t really map well to time. For instance, what does five minutes of push ups mean? It doesn’t account for resting between sets, the number of reps in a set, what kind of push up you were doing, etc. Oh, but you actually don’t have to worry about push ups because they’re not on the list of activities.
Kettlebells, musical instrument playing, parkour, sex, and snorkling are all activities that you can track on this fitness site. But not push ups.
Community Seems to be Dying Off
While there are a lot of diverse interests covered by the Traineo communities, posts to the forums seem to be infrequent. It’s not uncommon for a week to go by, or longer before a new reply is posted. Most of the discussion appears to come from the “Plus” members. It makes sense that these are the members who would be most invested in the site, and most interested in keeping the conversation going. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the spotty participation from new members makes me feel like there’s a fair amount of churn.
Overall Impression of Traineo
Traineo is a sleek site that is extremely easy to use and rewards you for the physical activity that you’re probably doing anyway. For simple weight tracking and ballparking your workouts and nutrition it’s more than sufficient. And it has a Wii activity built right in, which makes it very appealing if you want to track your time spent in Wii workouts. Couple that with the logs and you can track your Wii Fit/Sports Age, scores, etc. It’s a great Wii companion site.
And finally, here’s what you see when you log in to Daily Burn
Looks an awful lot like Traineo, doesn’t it? I liked the simplicity of Traineo’s log in screen, and I also like the (almost identical) screen on Daily Burn.
That graph on the login page shows your body weight by default. But you can choose to show lots of other information on it as well. It can graph calories burned, reps of specific exercises, distance run, or whatever else is of interest to you. Like Traineo you can add custom stats, but only if you have a pro account. Also, you can update your weight without ever leaving the front page. So if that’s all your interested in tracking, you never need to go any deeper into the site.
Food Log / iPhone App
Daily Burn tracks individual foods using a fairly robust database of generic foods, name brands, and store brands. Most items have complete nutritional data, and if not it’s easy to edit an item to update its entry for future use. It’s also easy to add foods that are missing from the database. Best of all, there is a food scanner app for the iPhone that can use barcodes to update your food log. If a food is in the database, but not linked to a barcode you can update it right from your phone. This makes it easy it track exactly what you’ve eaten in a day.
The site offers a number of workout plans created by users and staff. Each is rated by users, so there is some quality control on the user submitted content. Many of these workouts include not only helpful descriptions of how to do the exercise, but inline video as well. These demonstrations make it a lot easier to try something new. For exercises without a video attached, there is almost always a photo, and often a link to more information.
Granular Workout Tracking
Workouts are measured in units that make sense for that specific activity. For instance weight training is measured in reps and weight, and you can add as many sets as you want. Running uses time, distance, average grade, and calories burned. You can also indicate how strenuous the exercise was. The biggest difference between Daily Burn’s workout tracking and Traineo’s is that you can look back and see the components of each individual exercise and see how you’ve progressed over time.
Similar to Sparkpeople Spark Points, there is an achievement system in Daily Burn as well. You can voluntarily join challenges that will add badges to your profile once completed. Some are “Everybody Wins” challenges where anyone who completes the challenge gets the reward. Others go to the top performer at the end of the challenge period. For either type of challenge there are leaderboards where you can see who’s on top, and where you fit in. Unlike Sparkpeople, these challenges don’t earn you real-world prizes, just online prestige.
Not so Cool Stuff
In Your Face Upselling
Like Sparkpeople, Daily Burn offers a meal planning feature. I’d love to tell you what it’s like, but I can’t because it’s only available to paying users. When searching through workouts, you’ll find that some of the top rated and most interesting are only available to pro users. Also, some of your nutritional facts are very conspicuously hidden behind a “Pro Only” wall. To be fair, many of the pro features are the types of things that will only be of interest to people who are very serious about their workouts. The base functionality doesn’t feel gimped in the slightest. Still, there are constant reminders that you are missing out on something enticing you to upgrade.
Articles Pull you Out of the Site
Many sections of the site include relevant news articles along the bottom of the page. Clicking on these takes you away from the main site and into the Daily Burn Blog. Once there you have to hit back on your browser to get back to the other articles you may want to read. Obviously you can work around this by opening each article in a new tab, but since the rest of the site’s navigation is so smooth this stands out as a bit clunky.
Niche Communities are Kind of Hidden
The Daily Burn community is split into Forums and Motivation Groups. Motiviation groups are under the motivation category, and each group has its own mini-forum. But, from what I’ve seen, these group forums are kind of dead. The main forum on the other hand, has its own tab, and is quite active. I don’t necessarily think that the Daily Burn would benefit from a greater emphasis on social networking. That’s not what it’s for. But it would be nice if it were easier to find and communicate with people with common interests.
Overall Impression of Daily Burn
Daily Burn combines the elegance of Traineo with the depth of Sparkpeople. It’s a pleasure to use; very intuitive. The site offers a great mix of flexibility and simplicity. It is arguably more hardcore than traineo. You won’t find it offering tools to track vacuuming or musical instrument playing. And you need to put a bit more in to get the most out of it. And alas, the Wii is only represented by one small Wii Fit motivation group. Still, even though Wii isn’t explicitly supported, there is no reason you couldn’t track the progress of your Wii workouts on this site.
The Goldilocks Conclusion
For me, Sparkpeople was too big and clumsy, and Traineo was too light and quirky. Daily Burn turned out to be just right.
What’s your favorite fitness site? Do you think the Pro memberships are worth it? Anything you disagree with or would like to add? Please leave a comment.