(Note: This article appeared in the BCAB Newsletter, Spring 2018 edition
Getting in shape for the majority of visually impaired people has proven to be not only a difficult task, but also a rather daunting one. As a totally blind young person myself, with an interest in all things health, fitness, and everything in between, I have found that methods such as attending the gym, going to a private class, or in fact doing any sort of exercise outside of the home environment, to be extremely off-putting and ineffective, especially if you require, but do not have access to, sighted help.
For nearly two years now, I have been exploring my options to combine my interest in technology with fitness to help me finally do some exercise in the comfort of my home, in an environment I know like the back of my hand. Meet the Amazon Echo’s My Workouts skill.
What is it?
The My Workouts is a skill which creates a customised workout based on a profile you create, when you first enable the skill. It is enabled like any other Amazon Echo skill, by either going into the Alexa app and finding the My Workouts skill, or by simply asking Alexa to “Enable My Workouts,” where she will launch the skill ready for you to use for the first time.
You are first asked for your name, then you are given the option to either create a profile or try a generic workout. Which option you choose to go for is entirely your choice, but be aware that if you choose to do the generic workout, you will be prompted to create a profile nearly every time you open the skill.
If you choose to create the profile, you are asked questions such as your height, weight, gender, whether you are under or over 40 years, some fitness questions such as how many flights of stairs you can jog up in a tall building without stopping, how many regular push-ups you can complete without stopping, and how often you have exercised on average in the past week.
You are then asked to set a fitness goal: you can choose from either lose fat, get fit, or gain muscle mass. Your profile is then complete, and you are guided to begin your first workout.
Controlling the skill
There are very few commands which are used to control the skill, and you do not need to remember many of them because Alexa always gives you the choice of commands which you can say at that particular time. At the end of each workout, you are asked whether you found the workout too hard, too easy, or just right. This is where the skill does let me down slightly. If I tell Alexa that I found the workout either too hard or too easy, she will understand and move onto her next prompt. However, if I tell her that the workout was just right, she seems to always come up with very irrelevant responses. The workaround for this is to just say “Right.” If you found the workout just right and you do not want the difficulty level to change, then she will move on as usual.
Using the skill
The way the skill works is that Alexa will first tell you the name of the exercise, then she will tell you how many times you do the exercise, and for how long. You then have two options: you can either say “Ready,” and you will get a countdown, followed by some music she plays while you do the workout. Or you can say “Help,” then you will get a very detailed and clear description of how the exercise is done, perfect if you are unsure of how to do the exercise. I am personally very impressed with the descriptions, and if I am unsure of how to complete an exercise, I follow along with the description then repeat if I need to before saying “Ready.”
The workout lasts around roughly 20 minutes, and I have noticed that when a set of exercises is picked, then that set of exercises is done a few times to fill up the specified 20 minute length. The type of music played is not quite everyone’s taste, and although it is mostly random, I did experience an occasion where I would hear the same soundtrack about six times in a row. But this has only ever happened once though, and personally I did not mind too much, but some people might dislike this, especially if they are not keen on the sound of the track. None of the tracks sound like songs to me, instead, they sound like samples of music which have been chosen specifically for the skill. You are not able to pick tracks, and are also unable to control the volume through voice whilst in the skill. However, you can still use the volume control on your Echo or buttons on your Echo Dot. Although using the buttons is a good option, it is not ideal in the middle of a workout during a floor exercise, depending on where the Echo device is placed!
The types of exercises which the skill offers are varied but at first can seem a little advanced for some people who are expecting just simple exercises. For me, it really does simulate a gym workout, having the skill means I can still keep fit despite struggling to attend the gym.
I would recommend having quite a large floor area due to the amount of floor work the skill requires you to do. You can use the skill as much or as little as you like, I have chosen to use it during the weekend and have found it really beneficial.
The minor bugs present in the skill are sometimes annoying. I would like to see the implementation of the ability to control volume through using your voice so that there is no need to stop the workout every time this needs to be done. I also wish that there could be an option which allows the user to choose what type of exercise they do. Currently, the skill offers cardio type exercises such as planks, push-ups, squats, etc. Although these are very effective it would be even better if the user could pick a different type of exercise, such as yoga, or exercises which focus on a specific area of the body such as the arms.
For visually impaired Alexa users, I think this skill is a great solution. With its fully audio based interface, simple voice prompts from Alexa, and the ability to customise it to your needs at no extra cost, it makes me want to keep this skill enabled and gives me something to look forward to. Paying for a support worker and a gym membership would cost me a lot more long-term, not to mention the hassles of health and safety, but paying the very small one-off price for something small like the Amazon Echo Dot makes everything a lot more affordable. I would highly recommend the skill to anyone despite the minor bugs mentioned above.