Wellness – There’s an App for That

One advantage of having a new generation of smartphones and tablets available is the wealth of free or inexpensive applications that can help us manage our daily lives. From banking to yoga practice, there are apps to make the job easier, quicker, or more fun.

I can report my own personal experience with one variety of these programs: diet and fitness apps. After my most recent six-month visit to the doctor, I resolved that I needed to lose some weight and get more fit. I turned to the world of apps to give them another try.

(Warning: Long post ahead!)

We’ve all read and heard a great deal of confusing and contradictory advice on the topic of diet, weight, and fitness. Businesses are founded on one or another approach, like the “glycemic index,” South Beach, the “paleo-diet,”and many others. Just yesterday, I read an interview with Bob Harper, the man who coached the participants on “The Biggest Loser,” and he had a whole laundry list of what kinds of foods to eat at which time of day, along with certain foods to eat or avoid. I don’t know about you, but my grocery shopping is already expensive enough without trying to find some unusual variety of cucumber. His advice is certainly good, and he knows how to get people to lose large amounts of weight; but I suspect that the more complicated your daily routine becomes, the more likely it will be that you will eventually fall back into your old patterns.

So I’d like to put in a good word for an old-fashioned approach – one that carries the recommendation of most dietary and medical professionals: Cut down on the number of calories you eat, and increase the number of calories you burn, and if there’s a net deficit, you will lose weight. This is where the apps come in.

Awhile ago, I got a program for my computer called “FitDay.” This program lets you enter all the food you eat and your exercise, and gives you a graphical summary of your nutritional status and weight. The problem is that the process of entering the food you eat is cumbersome, and the database it uses seems outdated and at times bizarre, being based on old USDA lists of nutritional values. (Some of the foods seemed to be from the 1940’s, when people lived on farms and cooked with lots of salt). The standalone program also didn’t synchronize with any mobile devices, since those could only sync with the website version.

So when I got my new smartphone (an iPhone), I looked for other apps. There is one called “LoseIt” that works pretty well, but I prefer one called “My Fitness Pal.” It’s basically the same idea as the others, where you enter everything you eat and drink (yes, drink… Remember that alcohol has at least 150 calories in each ounce).

The nice thing about this app (and some of the others I’ve seen) is that you can use the camera on your smartphone to scan the UPC on any packaged food you eat, making it a lot easier to enter the nutritional values. You can also enter the ingredients for any recipes you make fairly easily, either by scanning the packages or choosing them from a list. Many fast foods show up (including the downtown restaurants that provide the catering for my meetings at Adler School – a notorious source of extra calories!)

The app is constantly in touch with the website, so it finds foods much quicker than the older programs (watch your data plan, though). Another advantage of the online synchronization is that your changes are updated across devices instantly. (MyFitnessPal has versions for iOS, Android, Blackberry, and Windows Phone 7).

In addition to logging food, you enter any cardiovascular exercise you’ve done, and calories are subtracted. The built-in estimates seem a bit optimistic, but the proof will be in the pudding, as they say. You can always adjust the values if you want to be more conservative.

You can also enter strength exercises, but they don’t have calorie values attached because they’re a lot harder to estimate accurately. What I’ve done is to create “cardio exercises” that reflect a whole weight routine, and assign each one a calorie value that’s reasonably conservative, just to get some credit for all that work.

You are also asked to enter your weight in these programs, and most will show a graph of your progress. You can choose to enter other body measurements as well, but I figure you don’t need to worry too much about those, because it’s your weight and body mass index that most affect your overall health. I suppose someone may be very concerned about waist size, but my opinion would be that getting to a better weight will help with the other issues.

So what about the nutritional values of the foods you eat? The glycemic index, and all those rules about when to eat carbs and when not to? Well, what I’ve come to realize, after using the app for a couple of months, is that if you actually enter all the food you eat, you will soon learn how to balance your diet and eat better. You can see a listing of the nutrients you’ve eaten for each item, and totals for the day, the week, or the month. You can even see a pie graph of the percentage of your calories from fat, carbs, and protein. After awhile, by comparing your intake with the good old-fashioned recommended levels, you will adjust and eat better. That way, you don’t have to make difficult rules for yourself; instead you’ll just see that you need to adjust as you go. Like, “I need to cut the sodium today; I was over yesterday.” or, “I had more sugar than I was supposed to today. I’ll make a point of eating more whole grain tomorrow.” The same thing goes for fiber, Vitamin A, potassium, or anything else.

The nice thing about this plan is that you don’t need to feel deprived, and therefore don’t have to build in “free days” or anything like that. If you go over your net calories for the day (which shows up as a very obvious red bar on top of your green bar graph for the day), you can either walk the dog or eat less tomorrow. It essentially becomes what some have called “mindful eating,” because you’re paying attention to the total picture. As with any change of behavior, tracking your activity helps.

So how well did this approach work? Well, when I started I was well over what the trusty life insurance tables say I should be. The app set me a limit of 1650 net calories a day, and I’ve stuck to that almost every day. (Sometimes I had to do things like waxing the car to stay under the limit, though!) That quota was supposed to be one that would lead to about a pound per week loss, which is a reasonable recommendation according to nutritionists..

I’m happy to say that in 12 weeks I’ve lost 16 pounds, and feel a lot better. So I guess the proof is in the pudding, and the tried and true approach is best, at least for a person like me without too much excess weight and without too many medical problems. Besides, I like a diet that lets me have bacon and eggs sometimes – just as long as it isn’t every day!

On the fitness side, there are also some good apps. I’ve had had a roomful of weights and equipment at home, and no real excuse (other than lack of motivation) for not using them in the past year or so. So I looked for an app that would include plenty of free weight exercises, and some stability ball exercises for core strength as well. One app that I like is called “Fitness Buddy” (See a pattern here? “pal” and “buddy”… I guess friendliness is catchy). This program has lots of exercises for all types of equipment (and for none at all), so it’s adaptable. It has three or four photos of each move, and will display them sequentially to give a little animated view of the exercise. It also has the ability to log your exercises and build your own workouts. This helps me to stay out of the rut I tend to fall into by doing the same routine too often.

Finally, I downloaded a pedometer app that uses the built-in accelerometer in the phone to count steps. Not only is it more accurate than my old clip-on pedometer, but it also calculates distance and calories used. It even shows your route on a map!

These are just three little apps, but they make a big difference in my health and wellness. Because they’re on your phone and always with you, apps like these are more likely to be used consistently, and therefore to lead to lasting behavior change that will produce better health. Of course, I had my doctor’s encouragement in my plan, and you should check with yours too, especially if you have any chronic health conditions. But I think the approach I’m using would be a reasonable one for many people who need to do a better job of leading a healthy lifestyle.

UPDATE June 11, 2011: After a little more reading, I should add that body fat can become another focus of a fitness effort. If you aren’t losing body fat, you could be losing water (which can be misleading) or “lean mass” – that is, muscle… And you generally don’t want that to happen. So the goal becomes to lose body fat and, when possible, gain muscle.

There are different ways to try to measure body fat. The most accurate is the old Archimedes method of immersion in water. This is generally only done at hospitals and high end fitness facilities. The next best method is to use calipers to measure a skin fold. Most fitness centers should have these, or you can buy a pair. They take some practice to use properly.

There are also scales that use electrical conductance to estimate body fat, by placing your feet on metal contacts and running a slight current through your body. This method is vulnerable to variation based on water and electrolyte fluctuations during the day, so it’s best to average a number of readings taken at various times of the day. Consumer Reports doesn’t think much of these scales and has refused to rate them due to what it describes as their lack of accuracy, but they may be useful for tracking trends.

I’m happy to report that I’ve lost body fat (according to the scale method) about equal to the amount of total weight I’ve lost. So I may have gained a bit of muscle. You need to do resistance training (such as weight lifting or pushups) to build muscle. And it’s far easier to gain a pound of fat than a pound of muscle. So any gains in muscle are worth celebrating. (According to some sport and health physiologists, much of the initial weight loss with any diet can be water and stored glycogen, but after that initial loss the fat starts to disappear).

There’s a very good website, Hussman Fitness , that has articles on body fat, resistance training, and building muscle mass. Dr Hussman has a doctorate in economics, not exercise physiology, but his site appears pretty authoritative and well-researched. He has done the Bill Phillips “Body for Life” regimen and gives it a fairly rigorous review.

Body for Life was written by Bill Phillips in 1999 and he ran a sort of makeover competition called the “Body for Life Challenge.” His company was also in the business of selling supplements, and although the eating plan in the book didn’t require them, he pushed them pretty hard. He later sold the company to Abbott Laboratories, and Bill Phillips has a new website with a different exercise and nutrition plan, but the original BFL book is still a good plan for a brief (12 week or so) intense way to jump-start a fitness effort. He used a method called a “pyramid schedule” for weight training, in which you do a series of fewer and fewer repetitions with higher and higher weights, and finish with an “all out” effort that takes to you fatigue. This plan allows for a very vigorous workout in under an hour a day, and has built-in stretching via the early, low-weight set for each muscle group.

I used Body for Life exercises for a number of years and then quit when I had surgery, which was a mistake. I still use it as one of my exercise variations, but change things up more often these days. Just getting started again was the biggest hurdle.

If you have any stories of your own about what works and what you like or dislike about diet and fitness apps for your phone, tablet, or computer, feel free to post them in the Comments section.

Update – July 17, 2012: I’m still at it, and now have lost 23 pounds. According to the scale (if it can be trusted)  I’m down to 24% body fat, meaning just about all of the weight lost has been fat. I would encourage anyone who’s been meaning to make this kind of health behavior change to try it. One of my colleagues (who was my dissertation advisor back in the day) commented on how I look better. When he asked about how I did it, and I mentioned using an app to track what I eat, he agreed that behavior change works best when a person can track and document it. but he confessed to being a paper and pencil kind of person. So the high tech route may not be for everyone.

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