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Expat's smartphone application promotes fitness

By Mary Katherine Smith  (China Daily)

09:39, July 08, 2013

Krissa Hjartar talks about how Starters is working with social networks such as Facebook. [Photo / Provided to China Daily]

Bogged down with the hectic life of freelancing and contract work in design consulting, apprehensive about outdoor cardiovascular activities in polluted Shanghai and generally missing a regular workout routine, Krissa Hjartar saw a need in her life.

She soon realized that she was not alone in this need, as friends often complained of not having time to start and follow through with a workout program.

From there, the Iceland native set out to create what has quickly become one of the fastest growing fitness smartphone applications available, Starters.

Personal fitness and working out have always been a part of her life, Hjartar says, and growing up in a town of just 1,200 people she tried every sport available. But it wasn't until she tried judo that she found her favorite activity. She went on to become a national champion in the sport from 1992 until 1999.

"I fell in love with it right away and loved the fact that you use the opponent's force, weight and speed to your advantage," she says, adding that she was intrigued by how anyone, young or old, could train.

"Most important, it's a sport that requires constant learning. It's like chess, you are always learning a new game plan, but with your body."

It wasn't until moving to Shanghai less than two years ago because of her husband's job that the champion-turned-design-consultant decided to "restart" her fitness career in a new form.

Hjartar's idea for Starters came when she began sending workout videos that she created to friends.

It was when a friend, Joe Luttwak, told her that his chronic back pain was beginning to subside after only two weeks of doing her video workouts that she knew she wanted to help others too.

Luttwak has known her since their design school student days and has been an avid fan of her fitness videos.

He says he's the cliche example of someone who was too busy with work and life to spend too much time working out.

As a father of two he also began experiencing back pain when he would lift, carry and play with his young children. After doing the exercises that focus on building one's core, which in turn strengthen the back, he noticed the pain subsiding.

With such strong results from friends, Hjartar set out to see how she could make working out a community thing by bringing in friends to help her. From very simple ideas of helping people and promoting personal fitness, Starters was born.

Starters is a social fitness APP that taps into one's existing network through Facebook, creating teams to help keep users motivated. The APP offers a range of quick, fast-paced 10-minute workouts for users.

Although she is not a certified personal trainer, Hjartar is featured as the trainee in most of the videos while the Starters director trainer, Jason McClure, does the coaching.

The application also has the option for users to track their own personal workout. Once a workout is completed, be it a video or other workout, users can log in and inform their team about their progress.

Teammates are then sent notifications to their devices about others' progress. The social aspect is what sets this APP apart and was a major focus for the Starters team.

"It creates a little peer pressure from real friends," Hjartar says. Users can send teammates boosts of energy if they've been lacking in their workouts and high fives after teammates have completed workouts and view others' workouts.

"If friends have been doing something extraordinary we want to encourage the friends to reward others for their hard work."

In developing her pet project, Hjartar came across numerous studies that supported her idea that being influenced by friends make fitness goals much easier. "When they get these messages they feel like they have to work out as well," she says. "It's a testament of how important one's network is."

Not only has it become a social tool, but Luttwak, who was one of the first recipients of Hjartar's videos, has found ways of incorporating his workout into his home life. He uses his computer, a tool he previously associated with work and lethargy, to project his workout on the wall in his home. "It's like having a personal aerobics instructor and private workout session," he says, adding that his routine with Hjartar and Starters is an almost all-out family affair.

"The kids are even involved and try to talk to her through the screen," he laughs.

In terms of the content found on Starters, Hjartar's varied sports interests as a child and interest in different kinds of workout helped her and the team develop videos that focus on circuit and interval training.

And while some users in countries where Facebook is not accessible may be deterred from joining, plans are in the works to use other platforms to help peoples' teams expand.

"Starters is a good platform to encourage friends and get people involved to be healthier with the things we're doing and devices we're using anyway," says McClure, the director of training.

"Krissa's vision is a bridge between social media and virtual social lives." he added.

Starter's mantra is to work out 10 minutes a day to get started, and Hjartar practices what she preaches. She also knows the importance of doing a variety of workouts so that people are always challenged. "I like a mix," she says, "although I really like high-interval workouts where you're getting a lot in a short amount of time."

Hjartar's payoff from Starters has not been in improving her own personal fitness but in the feedback and responses she has received from users. "Users tell me that it is changing their lives," she says, adding that she is grateful to be able make a positive impact.

"It's the best thing I've done."

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