Smartphone Apps: Can They Help Health Intentions?

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In the never ending quest to reach that ultimate pinnacle of what I feel is my utmost best health and fitness, I’ve tried many different foods and workouts. As with almost everything else in life, smartphones are quickly becoming the first line of defense against slipping back into old habits, and I wondered if this technology could be my answer to improving my health without allowing the goal of treating my body better to seem too large or general to accomplish. We’ve all heard the phrase “there’s an app for that” but really, almost anything health related has an app. A quick scan of the  iTunes App store boasted thousands of medical apps ranging from an encyclopedia of medicinal herbs, to a baby heartbeat monitor for pregnant women to use on their growing bundles of joy.

 

In the beginning stages of my research, I noticed that even the medical community is getting in on the game, using some very specialized apps which have allowed doctors to quickly and efficiently diagnose and treat a variety of conditions. At first I was leery, since according to the health tech industry blog HealthITjobs.com, users should always consider carefully what information they’re inputting into apps: “There are real concerns with regards to privacy and HIPPA compliance within this new wave of health related apps. Most of these apps are not regulated by the government for safety or security so right now the responsibility lies in the hands of the app developers. On the flip side, these apps are empowering individuals to take control of their own health and enabling healthcare providers to make better decisions with more data.”

What that means for me is that I double checked much of the apps’ advice, especially with regard to diet, against other sources. After all, I had learned the hard way that a 1200 calorie diet was simply not healthy for my body! Since then, I have tried many of the exercise and nutrition apps, and now I’m here to give you the 411 on the ones I found the most intriguing.

 

Pact:

                I’ve been using Pact for almost a year now (it’s what sparked my interest in further apps), and I have to say it is my favorite of the fitness apps I’ve tried. The concept behind the app is that the “pact” holds you responsible to get to a gym, or workout elsewhere, by penalizing your wallet if you don’t.

 

Here’s the breakdown: you set the number of days you want to work out, and then you set a dollar amount for how much you have to pay if you don’t hit that number of days by the end of the week. At the end of the week, if you have met your goal, you actually get paid for working out from the pool of money collected by those who were forced to pay up after not meeting their goal. The more days in the week you assign yourself to workout, the higher the pact (i.e. if your pact is to work out 3 days, your payout might be 80 cents, but if it’s 6 days, it could be $1.25).

 

The app requires you to check in at a gym (if you gym isn’t on there you can add it) and you must stay for at least 30 minutes. It also tracks movement not at the gym, and is able to sync with a number of fitness monitoring devices. A new feature they also have is a veggie pact, where you set an amount of veggies or fruit that you want to eat per week (you have to take a photo and send it in to prove that you’re eating them) which follows the same system as the workout pact.

 

Granted, the payouts at the end of each week aren’t big, but the threat of having to pay up $10 if I don’t workout 4 days that week is more than enough to get me going. The payout is just additional fun, and if anything, a necessary reminder that I’m doing a good job.

 

I’m not the only one who found the small incentive more than enough; creator of Pact, Yifan Zhang, told the NY Times that her app resulted in users making a whopping 90 percent of the workouts they commit to.

My Fitness Pal:

 

                There is more and more evidence that keeping a food diary or calorie log is one of the most effective ways to lose weight or monitor your diet. My Fitness Pal allows you to do that right on your smartphone (no more dragging around a notebook and massive calorie counter book). Their database includes tens of thousands of different foods, dishes, and even restaurant menus.

 

One of the best parts about this app is that it’s completely customizable to your goals. The app inputs your age, height, weight, and what your diet goals are (i.e. lose weight, gain weight, maintain) and it gives you a calorie count for what you should aim to eat that day. It even gives you a pie chart breakdown of your food intake (carbs vs. protein vs. fat) to ensure your focus isn’t just on the number, and it also features a graph that shows you how much weight you’ve lost since starting the app. It’s one of the most helpful and advanced calorie tracking systems out there, and sure beats having to crunch the numbers yourself!

 

HeadSpace:

 

I’m the first one to admit I can veer towards the “tightly wound” category the minute I get stressed. Once a wrench gets thrown in the gears of my daily life, I immediately become wound like a top, with very little perspective on the situation. However, you could make the argument that being aware of my tendencies is half the battle. So, when I first read about meditation through phone apps I found it an interesting idea to try.

Granted, the whole idea of meditation seemed a bit iffy to me at first – I’m one of the ones who finds shavasana the most difficult part of yoga practice. However, the meditation expert (and former monk) behind this app, Andy Puddicombe really understands how meditation can fit into the modern world. It only takes 10 minutes a day, and you’re guided through it, but it really does put you in a different mindset than before. For me, when I became stressed out, it really helped change my whole mentality on the situation by encouraging me to relax, if only for a minute.

 

                Overall, I felt these apps did help improve my health, if only as motivators. They also resulted in the added benefit of knowing that when I did decide to treat myself (to a day off or a sweet treat) I really had earned it. After all, the proof was in my phone!

 

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