Best of the Web

Online workout sites can help you get fit, but our CEO testers recommend exercising caution

Starting an exercise regimen in front of your computer may sound like fodder for a Saturday Night Live skit. ("Now sit! And click! And point! And click!") But Web-based workouts are no joke. Dozens of sites offer fitness advice, information, programs, and tools, some free, some for a price. Checking them out can be almost as time-consuming as training for a 10K race. We decided to help you cut to the chase by road-testing some top exercise sites.

To narrow the field, we focused on general-interest fitness sites. We sought a blend of content and interactive tools, such as training logs, customized workout plans, and discussion groups. We eliminated sites for fitness-industry pros, retailers, and sports and health magazines. We also filtered out several good medical sites offering exercise, diet, and nutrition information. That left us with a handful of contenders that could appeal to busy executives, whether they're hard-core jocks or novice weekend athletes.

Regular Best of the Web readers may notice a change in the way we evaluate sites, beginning this month. We'll still base the column on frank feedback from independent judges who are, like you, busy entrepreneurs. But rather than compile responses from a large, diverse panel of testers, as we've done before, we'll recruit just a few with serious interest, expertise, or experience in the subject they're surveying. (Naturally, we'll always weed out judges with conflicts of interest.) And because we believe you'll find our judges' insights particularly valuable, we'll replace our old letter-grade system with their comments and recommendations.

This time around, we recruited three company leaders, all with excellent fitness credentials, and asked them to put the sites through rigorous workouts. They evaluated content and tested free interactive features such as workout builders and training logs.

Their general conclusions: Exercise Web sites won't put health clubs out of business, but they're a solid source of information and inspiration. And the best of the sites offer a reasonable alternative for healthy folks looking for a fitness regimen without dropping a ton of money. (Of course, as you would with any exercise program, check with your physician first.) "Online fitness sites can't compare, in terms of personal motivation, with a training partner or personal trainer," says ServerVault CEO Patrick Sweeney, a former champion rower. "But they have a much higher level of available knowledge that can be quickly and easily mined."

Sometimes, though, that knowledge translates to inaccurate advice, warns Lisa Johnson, founder and president of a Brookline, Mass., exercise studio. For example, some Web sites included exercises that Johnson wouldn't recommend, because she felt they were ineffective or, if done improperly, could cause injury. (For that reason, she recommends occasionally checking in with a human personal trainer.) But Johnson says workout Web sites do fulfill one critical purpose: "They offer hope."

Former World Games pole-vaulter and Novo Corp. CEO Kelly A. Rodriques emerged as the most critical of our panelists. "Many of the sites fail to deliver on quality," he says. Among the flaws he pointed out: sloppy design, skimpy content, and poor performance.

Despite their reservations, our CEOs each picked a winner. For Sweeney and Johnson: Asimba, no contest. "It fully encompasses the three components of wellness: nutrition, cardio, and resistance training," says Johnson, who planned to use the site personally for at least a month after the Inc. test period. Sweeney, too, bookmarked the site for return visits. Rodriques, however, didn't share the other panelists' enthusiasm for Asimba, which he ranked among his least favorite sites because of what he viewed as limited content. "Users can calculate the number of calories they burn while having sex, but they can't find a single running event in San Francisco during the upcoming year," he says. Rodriques chose as his top pick. "The site speaks well to athletes and adventurers," he says. He also praised the site's "sleek and professional" design.
What it's good for: Serious jocks who are interested in outdoor activities or team and league sports.
Don't waste your time if: You're sedentary, a fitness-machine aficionado, or a loner.
What our CEOs had to say: "Great site for weekend athletes and anyone looking to participate in organized activities."
What you should know: Its features include a comprehensive database of state parks and recreation facilities. The company also makes software for managing league scheduling and similar activities.

What it's good for: Savvy fitness recommendations; customized progress tracking; training programs for many sports.
Don't waste your time if: An avalanche of ads bothers you.
What our CEOs had to say: "The site is geared toward urbanites who train in gyms and city parks." "Poor design; thin, narrowly focused content."
What you should know: The site offers expert advice by E-mail and a find-a-coach service.

What it's good for: Credible, no-nonsense articles on health and fitness topics ranging from Pilates to pregnancy.
Don't waste your time if: You're seeking sophisticated applications; you'll find only a few basic calculators and planners.
What our CEOs had to say: "Great repository of information." "Seems more like a magazine than an interactive Web site." "Lively online community."
What you should know: Founder Shannon Entin is coauthor of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Health and Fitness.

What it's good for: A wealth of searchable, customizable nutrition information.
Don't waste your time if: You're beyond basic tips like "Exercise more."
What our CEOs had to say: "Most valuable for nutrition information." "Its strength is its focus on personalization." "Too slow for me. I didn't learn anything new or exciting."
What you should know: Medical advisers include a cardiologist and an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine.
What it's good for: Personalized workouts.
Don't waste your time if: You object to registering before seeing any content.
What our CEOs had to say: "Well-crafted site...a bit of work to get set up, but easy once you're finished." "Probably appeals to those looking to get fit rather than to those who already are."
What you should know: The site contains a huge library of exercises with video instruction.
What it's good for: Cardiac information.
Don't waste your time if: You get stressed out by Web problems. (Some testers reported problems accessing the site.)
What our CEOs had to say: "Aimed at baby boomers. Information is reliable and well researched." "Server problem prevented me from even reaching the home page."
What you should know: The site is operated by the American Heart Association.
What it's good for: Basic, no-frills instruction.
Don't waste your time if: You want fully explained or challenging information.
What our CEOs had to say: "Oversimplified instruction left plenty of room for error." "The plan that was eventually given to me was for a geriatric couch potato."
What you should know: The site doesn't indicate who owns and operates it.

Our panelists
Lisa Johnson is founder and president of Studio Elle, a Pilates training studio in Brookline, Mass. ( Johnson, a long-time fitness instructor, was the first person in New England to be certified as a trainer in the Stott Pilates exercise method; she holds many other certifications.

Kelly A. Rodriques is chairman and CEO of San Francisco-based Novo Corp. (, which develops, builds, and markets E-businesses. Rodriques, a pole-vaulter, competed in the 1986 World Games in Helsinki.

Patrick J. Sweeney II is founder, president, and CEO of ServerVault (, which provides secure, managed Web-hosting and data-storage services. He is a world-class single sculler who spent six years training full-time for the Olympics; he placed second in the 1996 Olympic trials.

Anne Stuart is a senior writer at Inc. Technology.

The Savvy Entrepreneur's Guide to Fitness

Strengths Likely beneficiaries Content
quality/quantity Active and participatory sports content Outdoor enthusiasts, teams Good to excellent
Asimba Comprehensive fitness information General population Fair to excellent
FitnessLink Articles; online community People seeking fitness communities Generally good
Fitscape Nutrition information People seeking nutrition information Fair to good Online exercise library Beginners and novices Fair to good Healthy-heart information Baby boomers with cardiac questions Excellent (1); unable to access/download (2) Very basic fitness information Possibly beginners Poor to fair

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Published on: May 1, 2001