Tonight on 5live’s Saturday Edition I’m chatting about fitness apps. Which is appropriate because in the last six months a fitness app has helped me lose, and largely keep off, around two stone. Today I am half a stone lighter than I was when I went to university (albeit a lot less fit). It feels good and I have to say it has been pretty painless.
How it Works
If you’re not familiar with this type of app, here’s how it works. I told the app — I used MyFitnessPal but there are alternatives — my vital statistics (weight, age, size, activity level) and my target weight and it gave me a calorie target each day. The user-generated database of foods the app can access makes it very easy to calculate the calories for each meal, even if it is composed of lots of random parts (as is often the case if you hate wasting food as much as I do). It can also record cardiovascular exercise and adjust your calorie intake appropriately, as well as recording various other stats (like water intake, strength exercises etc).. You tell the app your weight and each day it gives you a progress report.
Now you can argue about the value of calorie-based diets, but calories do provide a decent guideline to your food intake each day. And my issue like many people’s in the western world is not so much what I eat but how much of it. So MyFitnessPal has been ideal for me.
Food is Only Half the Story
But food isn’t even half the story as far as fitness is concerned. Activity is obviously important and MyFitnessPal isn’t perfect for monitoring that. There are loads of apps out there along with accessories (or ‘appcessories’ as they are increasingly known) that do a much better job. For example, Endomondoand others use the GPS in your phone to track the distance you have covered on a run or ride. They can even use the phone’s accelerometer (the bit that knows when you shake it) to track each step with a reasonable degree of accuracy. Accessories like the Nike Fuel Band and the Jawbone Up add richness to this tracking, monitoring things like the quality of your sleep.
UK company Fitbug is trying to bring together these aspects of fitness management — food and activity — into a virtual personal trainer. Fitbug combines a web-based control panel, tracking app and wirelessly connected sensors such as the Fitbug Air to instantly stream your stats back. What I’ve seen so far is compelling, and the company is making further moves with the launch at global consumer electronics expo CES of the ‘Luv’ blood pressure monitor.
This segues nicely into the third part of health monitoring: what you might call your medical health. For a while after I was (re)diagnosed with asthma a few years back I was a heavy user of the now-defunct Google Health service to record my use of my inhalers, and my peak flow readings. It was great to have a record of what I had taken and when, and a benchmark against which to compare when I was concerned about the impact a cough or cold was having on my breathing. The problem was that the data was only as good as my memory: for all the convenience of an app, I still had to remember to record every puff of Salbutamol. Not always easy.
The Virtual Health Service
Pulling this all together, where is this trend going? Staying in good health can be expensive, as anyone with a little-used gym membership will testify. But poor health is much more expensive, for all of us. If we want universal healthcare for all — and I very much do — we need to find a way to improve our general health and limit the largely self-inflicted impact of a modern lifestyle. It’s simply too expensive for us all to remain overweight and unfit. And it’s too expensive to treat health conditions like asthma only when they become acute.
Apps combined with wireless accessories, plus integrated communications in medical devices, could be a fantastic way to both monitor our health and nudge us into better lifestyles. A computer doesn’t need the diagnostic knowledge of a GP to monitor our weight, blood pressure, and in my case, peak flow. It just needs the right sensors and some basic processing to raise flags when we stray too far from our ideals or norms. For now we will need to tell it about our food and drink intake, but it’s probably only a matter of time until that is streamlined. Pulling in our social networks for peer support, as MyFitnessPal and apps like Strava and Fitocracy do, can strongly reinforce the nudge effect.
It may all seem a little ‘Big Brother’, as so many of tech trends based on local sensors and remote monitoring do. But with the right controls in place — this information could have some unpleasant commercial uses — I think it provides a practical and realistic means to nurture our nation’s collective health. And control our growing healthcare costs.