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The Power of Human Connection in Fitness Coaching

Can fitness apps replace human coaches? A study from Northwestern University says no. Participants with in-person coaching lost significantly more weight than those using apps alone. This highlights the irreplaceable value of human connection in fitness coaching. As obesity rates rise, the need for skilled, empathetic fitness professionals grows. Discover why human connection is essential for effective fitness and fat loss.

The Promise of Apps and Virtual Programs

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of apps and virtual programs out there that promise to help you lose fat and get fit. They’re often cheap, accessible (right on your phone!), and personalizable so you can tailor your program to your lifestyle and goals. They seem like a perfect fit for most people.

The Reality: What If They Don’t Work?

A new study out of Northwestern University has found that telecoaches and virtual apps are just no match for in-person coaches when it comes to fat loss.

The Study: A Comparative Analysis

The randomized controlled study divided a group of 400 overweight/obese participants into two groups:

  • Group 1: Used a Wireless Feedback System (WFS) and received in-person coaching and nutrition counseling for three months.
  • Group 2: Used the WFS only for three months.

Researchers tracked and compared weight-loss progress between the two groups.

Initial Findings

This initial phase of using only virtual technology lasted two weeks before researchers intervened with in-person coaching and nutrition counseling due to minimal progress. Unfortunately, the weight loss disadvantage persisted for over six months.


  • Virtual Technology Only Group: Lost 2.8 kg on average over six months.
  • Technology and In-Person Coaching Group: Lost 4.8 kg on average over six months.

As the article states: “In the new SMART study, people who initially only received technology without coach support were less likely to have a meaningful weight loss, considered to be at least 5% of body weight, compared to those who had a human coach at the start.”

The Human Element: An Irreplaceable Factor

The study’s author chalks up the discrepancy between the two groups as a failure of technology; an AI bot, she says, may be the solution, one that is advanced not only in its  “content but in emotional tone and context awareness.” 

The Essential Human Connection

But is this really the answer?

This study points to an oft-overlooked but absolutely essential factor for any successful fitness professional or business (or really for any people-facing service): the human connection. The researchers fail to observe this phenomenon, perhaps because meaningful interactions are difficult to quantify or study in a scientific way. But any proficient personal trainer knows that while knowledge and skill is critical for success, client connection and support is just as important, if not more so. 

The Limitations of Technology

Humans are not just their body fat percentage, or the weight that they want to lose, or their VO2 max, or their ideal training intensity. No matter how ‘advanced’ technology becomes, I believe it will be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to replace in-person coaching and fitness professionals with phone apps and programs. 

Addressing the Growing Need for Fitness Professionals

The Obesity Epidemic

The study author does bring up one very important, very urgent point: rates of obesity are growing in North America, as well as obesity-related illnesses and diseases. Currently, we do not have the human resources available to effectively treat this alarming condition. An app or virtual coach can seem like an easy, cheap, and accessible solution, but I, as well as many fitness professionals, am sceptical as to the effectiveness of such technology. As many experts are beginning to realise, more phone time is probably not the answer to our problems; for many of us, the time spent sitting on our phones and devices has been contributing to us becoming overweight or obese. I would venture to suggest that the meaningful, long-lasting solution for many people is more connection and more time in ‘the real world.’ 

The Real Solution: More Human Connection

Many experts are beginning to realize that more phone time is probably not the answer to our problems. For many of us, time spent on our phones and devices has contributed to us becoming overweight or obese. The meaningful, long-lasting solution for many people is more connection and more time in ‘the real world.’

A Vision for the Future

Prescribing Fitness Professionals

What I hope for is a future in which personal trainers and fitness professionals are ‘prescribed’, in the same way that a person can get a referral to a massage therapist or dermatologist by their general physician. If the condition is fitness-related, such as obesity or sarcopenia or even insulin resistance or depression, why not treat it with the appropriate professional? In this imagined future, fitness professionals are rigorously educated and tested, in the same way that we educate and test many health professionals, and their practice is subsidised by governing bodies. I believe this will attract many more people to the profession and it will also make coaching more accessible to ‘the average person’, so that we don’t need phone technologies and apps to stay active and healthy. 

Rigorous Education and Accessibility

In this future, fitness professionals would be rigorously educated and tested, akin to many health professionals, and their practice would be subsidized by governing bodies. This would attract more people to the profession and make coaching more accessible to the average person, reducing the reliance on phone technologies and apps to stay active and healthy.

The Essential Role of Fitness Professionals

The need for fitness professionals is only growing, and that’s why organizations like Infofit are so essential. Our world needs more skilled, educated, and human professionals who not only know their stuff but also want to know you as a person. There is an inexpressible value to feeling seen and heard, and we’re nowhere close to nullifying the need for human connection–nor would we want to.

Share Your Experience

What do you think? Have you tried virtual coaching and/or in-person coaching? We’d love to hear about your experience!

Wishing you all the best on your journey to optimum health! 

​​Written by Theresa Faulder, Master’s in English, Certified Personal Trainer and Infofit fitness blog writer.

Works Cited

Bonnie Spring, Angela F. Pfammatter, Laura Scanlan, Elyse Daly, Jean Reading, Sam Battalio, H. Gene McFadden, Don Hedeker, Juned Siddique, Inbal Nahum-Shani. An Adaptive Behavioral Intervention for Weight Loss Management. JAMA, 2024; DOI: 10.1001/jama.2024.0821

Northwestern University. “Tech can’t replace human coaches in obesity treatment.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 May 2024. <>.