The Best Free Health and Fitness Websites
Health and Fitness in the Information Age
Planning a diet or workout routine can seem overwhelming. In some ways, the internet has only made things worse. We have a wealth of information on diet and exercise at our fingertips, but how do we sift through the bad information to reach the good? And with all of the good workout and diet ideas out there, how can we decide which one is best for us?
Fortunately, there are a few fitness and diet websites that sort through all of that confusing and often conflicting information for us. They provide advice, tools, and motivation so that we can get straight to dieting and exercising without going into information overload.
From offering detailed diet logs to harnessing the social power of the internet, here are a few of the best health and fitness sites out there as we go into 2013.
General Health and Fitness Websites
One-stop shopping for all of your health and fitness needs.
A personal and perennial favorite, this site doesn't look like much but offers some of the most solid, science-based fitness information out there. From its library of strength training and cardio exercises, to its sections on workout planning, exrx has you covered. It even debunks a few fitness myths, like spot reduction, and backs its debunking up with citations.
If you don't want to read through the whole site to design your own strength training program, exrx has several templates for you to work from. Just pick a program and they'll give you a list of muscle groups to work and in what order, with links to the exercises for that muscle group. There are also plenty of fitness calculators, including one which can tell you your one rep max based on previous lifts. (To find them, go to the homepage and click the "Fitness Calculators" link in the menu on the left.)
As for nutrition, while exrx doesn't provide a diet diary, it does provide a comprehensive overview of all of the basics you need to know to manage your diet successfully.
Bottom line: If you're new to exercise, don't be intimidated by the barebones look of this site. It contains a ton of high quality information about diet, weight loss, and above all, exercise. There are only two downsides: the first is that navigation on the site is a little clunky, and the second is that there are no diet or fitness logging tools available. The best way to use exrx is as an educational resource and to go elsewhere for the bells and whistles.
Though aimed primarily towards women, this site features a wide variety of fitness tips, videos, healthy recipes, nutrition advice, and motivational blurbs that anyone can use. You can even find a ton of shopping links for workout gear and clothes at various price ranges.
Fitsugar only has two real downfalls. One is that the fitness advice is a little too trendy and not always very evidence-based. The other is that there isn't much in the way of tools, calculators, or food/fitness logs, making this site not quite all-in-one.
Bottom line: Fitsugar is a good source of ideas, motivation, and information, especially for women. However, the advice can be ruled more by trends than good science, so it’s a good idea to browse this site with your skeptic’s hat on. Also, if you’re looking for logs that will help you keep track of your diet and workouts, look on.
Livestrong is a good repository of diet and fitness advice, including healthy recipes, but it’s possibly even more useful for its food diary subsection, called MyPlate. MyPlate has a vast database of foods with detailed nutritional information, as well as the possibility to enter your own custom meals and recipes. For graph junkies, MyPlate graphs your weight fluctuations, your net daily calories, and provides instant charts of your protein/carbohydrate/fat split each day.
Livestrong also offers a fitness log and, for runners and cyclists, an entire subsection where you can plan, map, and record your running or cycling routes – and once livestrong.com knows where you’ve run and how long it took you, it can also tell you how many calories you burned.
Bottom line: Livestrong.com offers some powerful dieting tools, including one of the better food diaries out there. The fitness tools are a best fit for runners and cyclists. If you like graphs and pie charts, these guys will provide. Finally, you will find a good number of helpful articles on diet, fitness, and stress management. Livestrong won't answer all of your questions, but it'll see to most of your needs.
Social Networking Websites
Using the threat of public humiliation to keep you on track.
Fitocracy turns exercise into a game. Yes, a game: you get points for every exercise you log, virtual medals (and bragging rights) for every challenge you complete, and a huge community of people to follow you and cheer you on. The challenges consist of goals like, ‘Do eight pull ups.’ or ‘Run 20 miles in your lifetime.’ or ‘Deadlift twice your own body weight.’
The strange thing is that all of this actually works. It's rewarding to have your progress turned into something as clear and easy to understand as points. Jogged a mile? You've earned fifty points and you're now fifty points closer to becoming a fitocracy hero - the highest level, most awe-inspiring users in the system. Besides, having all of your fitocracy friends give you virtual thumbs ups and virtual pats on the back gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling, and that's always nice.
Bottom line: If you need a little extra inspiration, turning your fitness goals into a game in need of beating has turned out to be surprisingly effective for a lot of people. It also helps that they have an active community and the interface makes it very easy to find and interact with people who have the same interests or goals as you. Build a buddy list, see how many challenges you can win, and have fun.
Stickk can actually be used to push yourself into meeting any personal goal or resolution you choose, such as losing twenty pounds or quitting your cheesecake habit or remembering to charge your phone so you stop leaving the house with a dead battery.
The way it works is that you choose a goal, you choose one or more friends to keep an eye on your progress so that you can’t just drop out without getting made fun of, and then you choose your punishment if you don’t meet your goal. It could be that you’ll have to donate money to an organization you hate, or that you’ll have to do the chicken dance on the subway platform on your way to work the next day, but either way the idea is to make your punishment bad enough that eating tuna and celery for a month seems pleasant by comparison.
Bottom line: Stickk won’t give you workout ideas or tell you how many calories you’ve eaten today, but if you’re struggling with motivation it's a great way to leverage peer pressure.
This site is a goal-setting site much like stickk, but it’s purely fitness oriented and doesn’t have quite the same "oomph", since there are no consequences if you don’t stick to your goal. However, there are plenty of interesting public “challenges” to tackle (private challenges are pay-to-play) if you need that extra bit of motivation. Facebook integration allows you to challenge friends – or, if you like, you can start a group challenge in your home and workplace and compete to see who can make it onto the Social Workout leaderboard. Just make sure you don’t work with any sore losers.
Bottom Line: Social Workout is a little simple, but it's a nice, elegant system for setting fitness goals and using social pressure to encourage you to meet them. Social Workout probably won’t work for people who need a huge push, but for those of us who just need a little nudge now and then, you could do much worse.
Websites for Runners
When we told you to break a leg, this wasn't what we meant.
Nike+ might be corporate and mainstream, but it’s still free, and corporate money has built a rich, multifunctional website for runners everywhere. Track your runs, set goals, share a running diary, graph your progress, compete for a spot on the leaderboard, and brag to all of your friends on the site and beyond when you finally trim an extra ten seconds off that mile – if you’re a runner, you can do just about anything here. Most useful of all is the integrated Nike+ app for iphone and Android, which will use your phone’s GPS to plan and record your routes, then spit out your distance, pace, time, calories, and even the elevation you ran at.
Bottom Line: There are other tracking and support websites for runners, but this one does a very good job of filling that niche all by itself. The Nike+ app alone is worth jumping on board, since it’s thorough, reasonably well-coded, and has good technical support.
Brought to you by the same people behind Runner's World magazine, this site has all of the resources and research of the magazine behind it. Every aspect of the site is geared towards runners. Look here for runner-specific advice on training, nutrition, and injury prevention. Need a specific training plan or tips for jogging in cold, hot, or just plain bad weather? They've got that. Need a kick in the butt? They've got that, too, as well as many more motivational tips in their "motivation" section. The tools include race and route finders, race time calculators, a smartcoach, and even a shoe finder!
Bottom line: If you're not a runner you won't care about this site very much. If you are a runner or would like to be, though, this is one of the best - and it's free!
Another running site, this one is geared towards marathoners. The info it offers on training and nutrition doesn't beat what you can find at Runner's World, but the info on races and track events can't be beat. Find events all over the world, from 5ks to mountain runs to Olympic triathlons. Then go to Runner's World to help you train to do whatever it is you just signed yourself up for.
Bottom line: This is a niche site and shouldn't be treated as anything else, but it fills its niche well. If you're the competitive type and love to race, go here to find out when and where the races are - though if you decide to go attend a 20k race in Sri Lanka, well, you're on your own when it comes to airfare.
Websites for Weight Lifters
We lift things up and put them down.
I mentioned it before, and I'll mention it again: exrx is one of the best sites out there when it comes to filling your brain with knowledge about strength training. It has an extensive database of exercises with animations, pointers, and descriptions of exactly which muscles the exercise targets and how. If you'd like to learn about kinesiology and biomechanics, come here. It's a little dry, but extremely informative if you can slog through it.
Girls can lift weights, too. Just let stumptuous tell you - and she will. She'll tell you all about it.
This is a website geared specifically towards women, full of advice and encouragement and a no-nonsense take down of the idea that being feminine and being strong are mutually exclusive. Stumptuous passionately defends her position, backing it up with plenty of facts and the occasional bout of cussing. She takes down the idea that lifting weights will make you look like a man or turn you into a freakish mass of muscle, supports the very real fact that weight lifting is the best thing a woman can do to trim and tone, and reminds us all that life gets a lot easier when you don't have to look for a man every time you need to pick up something heavy.
From a practical standpoint, this site also offers plenty of clear, easy-to-follow advice for beginning weight lifters. Here you can find training plans, nutritional guidelines, and all of it is pared down to the essentials. Stumptuous will tell you what you need to know to get results, without fuss or frills.
Bottom line: Stumptuous is a great resource on weight lifting, especially for women. The information here is solid, high-quality, and well thought out. The only thing you won't find is sympathy for anyone who claims weight lifting isn't for girls.
Some of us don't have access to a gym and don't have room or money for equipment at home. The folks at Simplefit say, "That's okay." They have a solution.
Simplefit lives up to its name. It offers a simple strength training plan based on tried and true body weight exercises such as push ups, pull ups, and squats. There's a beginner's routine and then intermediate and advanced routines. Each routine consists of eight levels. The goal is to stay at each level until you can finish the workout in a certain amount of time, then move on to the next. It's meant to be done three times a week, and each of the three workouts is subtly different, training strength one day and endurance the next.
Despite the simplicity of the workout, it's fun, challenging, and great for anyone who's never exercised before or doesn't have much in the way of equipment. The folks on the Simplefit forums are friendly and supportive, and the program description is clear enough for anyone to follow.
Bottom line: For beginners, at-home exercisers, and people who are short on workout time, this is a great little plan with a supportive community behind it. The site, however, doesn't offer much in the way of advice beyond the workout plan, and no tools. It's all about the workout here.
For people who are a little past the beginner level but still prefer the unique challenges of body weight strength training, this is a fantastic resource for ideas, advice, and workout plans. Of particular interest are the articles on one arm pushups and pistol squats - two very challenging body weight exercises that are very easy to do wrong, but that this site gets right. They will go into exhaustive detail about form, and offer plenty of modifications in case you're trying to work up to some of the more challenging exercises but aren't quite there yet.
Bottom line: Like Simplefit, this is for strength and agility training without weights, and only that. If that's your thing, or if you're low on equipment, this is a very detailed and helpful resource.
Websites for Cyclists
Who knew it could be so healthy to sit and spin?
This site is the doppelganger of Runner's World, only for bicyclists. Design a training regimen, plan routes, get nutrition tips, and find races. The only substantial difference is that, here, there are also significant subsections on equipment maintenance and repair.
This site, on the other hand, is more like the cyclist's answer to Cool Running. Here you can find bike routes and information on cycling events and biking tours all over the world. This is a great place to turn to for planning that bicycling vacation you've been dreaming about. It's even a good resource for just finding a fun new route for your weekend ride.
Websites for Yoga Fanatics
My karma just ran over your dogma.
There are many yoga websites out there, but this is the one I find myself returning to time and time again. It contains a wealth of information about yoga in general and some pre-designed workouts as well as plenty of tools to help you plan your workout at home. If you are designing your own workout, yoga journal has a pretty thorough database of poses, complete with detailed descriptions and pictures. Poses are organized by body part or by therapeutic focus. There’s also a sequence builder so that you can design your own yoga workout.
Best of all, though, yoga journal releases free downloadable yoga practice podcasts and videos, allowing those of us who can’t make it into the yoga studio to bring the studio to us.
Bottom line: Yoga journal won’t teach you everything you’ll ever need to know about yoga, but it’ll cover most of it. It also has some very polished podcast and video workouts, many of which are free for download from their website. A solid site all around.