Smartphone Fitness

Apps are great for charting health numbers, but do they help us change?

It’s called the quantified self movement. On a macro level, it’s the practice of monitoring every calorie consumed or burned, hours slept and spikes in blood sugar. It’s a term largely attributed to Wired magazine in 2007. The tracking doesn’t have to be electronic. A regular old pen and paper will do just as well, but the explosion of health and fitness apps has made it easier, more appealing and vastly more popular to track just about everything that goes into, comes out of or happens inside of the body.

Some of the apps broach medical device territory (and the FDA has plans to regulate these), but the more familiar ones are those geared toward gym rats, serial dieters and fitness junkies who embrace the systematization of their workouts, eating plans and overall wellness strategies. The added dash of social media thrown in doesn’t hurt in this day and age, either.

MyFitnessPal is the calorie-counting workhorse on millions of phones. This freebie harnesses the proven power of food journaling to help followers record every morsel that crosses their lips in the hope that the self-awareness will lead to reduced calorie consumption. Lose It! is another no-cost app that includes food journaling as well as exercise tracking and syncing with wearable device trackers such as Fitbit. When users reach goals and milestones, Lose It! awards badges that post to Facebook and other social media. The app also includes challenges to stir up a little friendly competition and hold you accountable for your goals.

On the more wackadoo end of the spectrum is Zombies, Run! This one infuses regular runs with a bit of pop culture novelty that capitalizes on both the contemporary zombie craze and the running boom. Just launch the app and run for your life as brain-eating monsters chase you mile after mile. It’s a game as much as a workout; users follow “epic” story lines to complete missions and collect supplies for future outings. It earns glowing reviews from critics and users alike, and at just $3.99 seems worth it for the novelty alone.

So the apps are accessible. Most of them are affordable—even the higher-priced Hal Higdon marathon and half marathon training apps are only $9.99. They’re linked to social media that everyone is using anyway. They’re fun. But do they work?

That’s still up for debate, particularly with respect to weight loss. An American Journal of Preventive Medicine review of thirty common weight loss apps determined that they lacked proven behavioral strategies to “improve motivation, reduce stress and assist with problem solving.” The study did not determine whether the apps would work—only that they did not contain features known to be effective in helping individuals lose weight and keep it off.

Dustin Maher, local athletic trainer and owner of the west side Fit Moms Transformation Center, likes some apps and believes they can be useful tools. “MyFitnessPal [has] such a great database on pretty much any food you can imagine and can show you how many calories you are eating and [has] a great support system built in where you can add your friends, too,” he says. 

Maher also developed his own app that sells for $1.99 and has garnered a few high reviews on the App Store. The Flat Stomach Workout app creates go-anywhere core-based workouts based on a user’s available time and ability. The only extra equipment required is a ball.

The key to remember is that the apps are great for individuals who like incorporating personal technology into their fitness plans and who are already motivated. They might make the work more fun and easier to track, but they still won’t do the work for you.

“The apps are just another tool, and with all tools you have to use them,” Maher says. “One tool can’t solve all your problems and is just one piece of the equation. Just like exercising every day won’t make a massive difference in weight loss. It requires the balance of moving more, eating the right foods that nourish the body and creating the type of support group that will be there to help you stay consistent.”

Jennifer Garrett writes about health and fitness at madisonmagazine.com.

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