Get a little Appy to stick with Your 2016 Health Resolution
We’re approaching the 60-day mark into 2016 and many of us may be faltering on our health and fitness resolutions. Could you use a little high-tech support to help you stay on track with your goals?
Well-designed health apps can help you stay motivated and can make sticking to your health and fitness resolutions—be it losing weight or being more physically active—more engaging and effective. The hard part for most of us is figuring out which apps are the best quality relative to your needs and available technology.
Essential Features of Quality Health-Fitness Apps
A few key features to look for in apps designed to help track eating and exercise behaviors are:
- a user-friendly, intuitive platform.
- the ability to set a goal and get visual or other (e.g., messaging) feedback so you can see your progress and feel a sense of achievement;
- tools for positive reinforcement/accountability (e.g., social networks, rewards, contests);
- accuracy of data entered and how it is tabulated, including calories, nutrients, steps, miles, etc.).
Nutrition apps that monitor dietary intake of macro and micronutrients (e.g., calories, protein, fat, sodium, sugar, vitamins etc.) should have a few specific features of their own.
“With the diet apps, it is important to choose one with a comprehensive food database,” says Dr. James O. Hill, Ph.D., Professor of Pediatrics and Medicine at University of Colorado School of Medicine – Center for Human Nutrition. “It’s also important to make sure the foods a person typically eats are found in the database.”
A red flag should go up if you encounter an app that suggests very specific or rigid diets. “In the case of eating well, what I would look for is reliable guidance for eating more nutritious, less processed foods overall,” says David L. Katz, M.D., Director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. Look at the website or blog for an app and see what kind of advice they’re giving—is that information written by qualified health professionals?
Depending on your goals, a physical activity app might be best if it accurately tracks the activity you enjoy and will help you stick with it over time. For absolute beginners, Dr. Katz suggests looking for an app that provides “guidance for fitting-in more total movement and exertion into every day [rather than] an app narrowly focused on just one activity.” For the more experienced exerciser, you can look for apps that track any number of performance details, but be warned sometimes more data can lead to more headache and less motivation. For some folks who aren’t competitive athletes in training, tracking all those numbers—from steps to laps to miles—and being reminded when you ‘fall short’ of exactly 10,000 steps, is enough to take the joy out of an activity you once did just for the pleasure of it.
There are a wide variety of activity trackers on the market ranging from pedometers to arm/wrist bands to devices that will track everything from steps to sleep. Dr. Hill advises choosing one that “displays information in a simple and useful fashion.” The data should also be essential to the goals that you have or to those specifically set by your doctor or other health professional.
Apps and other measurement tools are only helpful when the user knows what to do with them: Effective measurement is useless without an effective program for you to follow, such as from a doctor or fitness professional. “I think that apps can be a great help when used in conjunction with a specific program, but the app does not take the place of a program,” says Dr. Hill.
How to Choose (relatively) Reliable Health/Fitness Apps
So, how do you choose a mobile health/fitness app that won’t give sketchy advice and is reasonably accurate?
“The most important factor [in choosing an app] is that it is based on good behavior modification science and that the advice be fundamentally sound,” says Dr. Katz.
In an ideal world, doctors and other health researchers would have access to evidence about the actual results from using a given app or device.
“Then, we could judge these as we judge drugs and procedures, by reviewing relevant evidence. In the meantime, the best we can do is judge apps based on their apparent merit—the theories, approaches, and information base,” says Katz.
While we’re waiting for that day to come, you, me and the health and fitness professionals we work with all will have to do our own homework to stay informed about the available technology. Here’s what you can do now:
When viewing an app in the iTunes or Android store:
- Read reviews from other users to see if the app actually does what it’s supposed to do.
- Look at the app’s date last updated to be sure the app won’t provide potentially risky out-of- date information.
Visit the app developer’s website:
- Look for a valid behavioral theory and sound content to support the app.
- Look at the developer team. Ideally, you want to see medical advisors, not just engineers, with appropriate health/medical credentials behind the development of the app or device.
Be realistic about what is promised:
- Steer clear of apps that claim to diagnose or treat anything as well as those that suggest you take a certain drug or supplement, eat certain foods, or suggest restrictive diets or excessive exercise.
Apps to Help You Eat Better, Move More
I’ve had the chance to try a variety of fitness and nutrition tracking apps. Below are a few that meet the criteria we just discussed and which consistently have good reviews. Of course, tech data changes quickly as new devices and apps come to market, so we will be revisiting this topic in the future.
My Net Diary is ideal for people whose goal is to lose weight and they need a straightforward way to calorie count and become more aware of the amount and types of foods they’re eating—fats, carbs and proteins in particular. My Net Diary has a large food database and an easy-to-use barcode scanner so users don’t have to manually enter everything. All entered data can be turned into charts, which makes it easy to see patterns and progress. Support groups, including consulting with a registered dietician, are available (additional fees apply).
MyFitnessPal is great not only for people who want to lose weight but for those who manage their nutrition to maintain their weight or increase muscle mass. It’s the latter two items that really make MyFitnessPal stand out as a nutrient and activity tracker. It has an enormous food and restaurant database (millions of items) and tracking for a wide variety of fitness activities. A unique feature is the recipe importer. It also syncs with other devices such as a FitBit.
MedHelp offers a family of apps that provide tracking for sleep, nutrition/diet, exercise, and other health parameters. The My Diet Diary app can track food, weight, exercise, and water intake. Data can be connected with FitBit and many other popular devices. It allows for customized goals and support forums are available through the MedHelp social network. Data can be printed and shared with a doctor.
Moves makes it easy for users to reach 10,000 daily steps by using a smartphone’s motion sensors to determine how many steps are taken in a given period. Keep the app running in the background, ideally in your pocket or strapped to an arm band, and it tracks continuouly. Users also get a text each morning stating yesterday’s step count and record for the month. (It also logs cycling and running as well as calories).
Move Your App keeps you from sitting for extended periods of time by reminding users to get up and move around. At the end of the day, users can see how much time they spent being sedentary versus active. Users can set timers for reminders such as how frequently to be cued to get up, how long to be mobile once on your feet, etc.
Human is an all day activity tracker that inspires users to move for at least 30 min daily. It tracks minutes in motion. The app refreshes automatically in the background of the device and provides feedback the following day.
Live Science Best Calorie Counter Apps
Exercise is Medicine encourages primary-care doctors and other health-care providers to include physical activity when designing treatment plans for patients.
Infographic on “health trackers”: How often are people tracking their personal health data?
Written by: Karen M. Rider, M.A.
Karen is a contributing editor with Medicine Talk Pro. She has a decade of experience writing about holistic health and wellness. Karen holds degrees in kinesiology and health psychology and has training in wellness coaching, yoga, and health research. She is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the Association for Health Care Journalists. When she isn’t writing, Karen enjoys biking and kayaking with her family and relaxing with a home-brewed cup of organic tea. Learn More about Karen
*The list of apps included in this article does not imply endorsement by any medical expert quoted or by Medicine Talk LLC.