Self-improvement apps: The best advice for using them

How to choose the right app to keep yourself fit, healthy and learning during lockdown.

Woman using fitness app on phone.

For a lot of people, the lockdown is the perfect opportunity to use their free time for something different. Whether it’s learning a new skill or just keeping fit within the new boundaries, there’s an app for doing that.

But which app to choose? Should you spend money? And how do you stay on task?

I tried a couple of apps: Duolingo to learn a language (iOS and Android), and Nike Training Club (iOS and Android) to stay in shape. Here’s my experience, along with advice on how to choose the best app for you and get the most out of it.

How to choose the right app

A lot of websites will have lists of “the best apps for [X]”, though there’s rarely any overlap of apps between the lists, and their judging criteria can be vague. This doesn’t help when choosing.

You know what you want in an app, so how do you go about finding the right one?

  • Look at the charts in the app store. An app being popular doesn’t mean it’s good, but it gives you a starting point.
  • Ask your friends. See if any of them have tried those apps. That way you can get specific answers about an app based on what you want out of it.
  • Look at online reviews, but be cautious. Make sure to go for trusted sources. For example, as mentioned in our article on health apps, the Health Navigator Charitable Trust and Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (Vic Health) websites use health experts to road-test apps.

My experience

Of the two apps I used, Duolingo was the easiest to choose. It’s been around for a long time and many of my friends have used it to learn new languages. It also has studies showing it gets results.

Nike Training Club was one a few friends had used, and it also rated highly in the app store. It was given good reviews on quite a few sites, including well-known fitness websites.

Screenshots of Duolingo.

Learning French with Duolingo.


Are paid apps or in-app purchases worth it?

In general, apps that cost money are better than free ones. Free apps will make money in other ways - this usually means selling advertising space or your information.

Quite a few self-improvement apps have in-app purchases. You can see what these are in the app store listing before you download it. Usually, they’re for different types of subscriptions or adding extra packages. For example, a fitness app may have different workouts, or a music training app might have additional song packages.

You should be able to tell if the extras are worth it by using the free app. However, be aware that if the app maker goes under before your subscription is up, you likely won’t be getting a refund.

Also don’t purchase “incentive tokens”. These are usually found in games to keep you playing longer (for example, if you fail a level you can buy “stars” that let you replay it), but they can be found in other apps as well.

My experience

Both Nike Training Club and Duolingo offer in-app purchases.

Nike has subscriptions, but the free content is good enough that I didn’t have to subscribe.

Duolingo has two types of purchases: incentive tokens and an upgrade to Duolingo Plus. The tokens aren’t necessary to continue your learning and are mostly for cosmetic changes to the app.

I did pay for the upgrade, as this removed ads from the app and allowed me to work offline.

Gym equipment, wearable devices and other extras

Some of these apps need extras. If you’re learning to play a musical instrument, you obviously need the instrument.

Similarly, some fitness apps require you to have home gym equipment, which can range from treadmills, weights and bars to resistance bands. If you don’t have any of that, then you need to make sure the app has options for training at home with no equipment.

If you own a fitness tracker, then some apps work better with them than others. See if the manufacturer recommends any particular app.

My experience

In part I chose Nike Training Club because it had a good range of bodyweight workouts (no equipment needed) and it integrated with another Nike app that I use for running. Both apps worked through the Apple Watch as well, so it was a perfect storm.

Duolingo just needed me and some spare time. However, it requires you to speak out loud, so you may need a quiet spot.

Screenshots of Nike Training Club.

Screenshots of Nike Training Club.


Forming a habit

Like most self-improvement tools, these apps are only effective if you keep using them. For this reason alone, I recommend turning on push notifications for them. This means they will buzz your phone every time you’re meant to do a workout or take a lesson.

Building these into your daily routine will help settle you into a rhythm, and soon you’ll be halfway to fluent French or six-pack abs.

My experience

I’m terrible at keeping a schedule, especially at home, so I forced myself to do my workouts first thing in the morning.

Nike Fitness Club has plans you can build using the pre-made workouts, so it will say what you’re doing on a certain day. You can choose how long you want the plan to last and what level of training you want to do.

Duolingo uses its cute owl mascot to guilt you into doing your lessons. It also keeps records of how many days in a row you’ve been learning and encourages you to maintain that streak.

Getting results

I followed my own advice and am pretty pleased with the outcomes.

Nike is keeping me almost as active as I would be if I could go to the gym (I have even improvised some weights with paint buckets full of water).

Duolingo is a bit tougher, as I need to sit still and concentrate for a long period, but my French is coming on. I did find myself ignoring the owl after a while, so there was a bit more dedication required and even setting meetings for myself, but I’m getting there. C’est la vie.

Coronavirus (Covid-19)

Coronavirus (Covid-19)

Crowd of people walking.

Coronavirus (Covid-19)

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