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Mobile apps for getting and staying fit

Here are some fitness mobile apps that TechRepublic contributor Deb Shinder finds useful. Share your fitness app recommendations in the discussion.

Today's younger generations are perhaps more cognizant of the importance of healthy eating and exercise than their parents were, thanks to public awareness education and government campaigns. That's not to say that they're necessarily more fit, but they don't have the excuse of ignorance. At the same time, many of us in our 40s and 50s are becoming painfully aware of our own mortality, and are watching our diets and working out in efforts to postpone the inevitable effects of aging.

No matter how old you are, if you're in the IT business, you probably have a desk job where you sit at a computer for hours on end and don't get much physical activity. Geeks also have a tendency to reach for food that's quick and tasty (e.g., pizza, Twinkies, and French fries), and to guzzle loads of caffeine- and sugar-laden drinks to help us stay awake on those long nights spent troubleshooting a tricky network problem or coding a killer script.

All this can add up to that brilliant mind finding itself trapped inside an overweight or at least out-of-shape body, and who needs that? Computerholics want to look good and feel good, just like anyone else. But we might need a little extra motivation to get started and stick with it, and if we can use technology to make it easier, all the better.

Over the past year and a half, I've lost more than 40 pounds and kept it off by adjusting my calorie intake and getting a lot more exercise. One thing that has kept me going, and even made it fun, is tracking it all with some cool apps on my cell phone. A smartphone is the perfect diet and exercise aid because you always have it with you, so you can quickly enter the data without having to carry around a food diary or relying on your memory at the end of the day. There are dozens of health-related apps for all phone platforms, but here are two apps installed on my Android phone that I've found to be most useful.

MyFitnessPal

The MyFitnessPal app is great. You set it up with your age, height, weight, normal activity level, and your goal weight (or the weight you want to maintain), and it calculates your base calorie requirements. Then you enter the food you eat each day, along with cardiovascular and strength building exercises you perform, and the app provides you with a running total of your net calorie intake and how many you have left (or have gone over).

Losing weight is pretty simple: burn more calories than you take in. But health is not just about calories. The app also gives you a running breakdown of the fat (further broken down into saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and trans fat types), cholesterol, sodium, potassium, carbs, fiber, sugars, protein, and various vitamins. This makes it easy to adjust your eating to ensure that you're getting a balanced diet, not just a low-cal one.

What really makes this program stand out from the other calorie-counting apps is its outstanding database, which includes most of the packaged foods you find in the grocery store and popular menu items from many of the standard chain restaurants. I was thrilled to find that even at a place like Genghis Grill, where you "build your own bowl," the database lists the nutrition information for each of their ingredients so I could still figure out my totals. For a regular chain such as The Olive Garden, it's even easier since each menu item is in the database. Who knew that a bowl of pasta and fagioli soup has only 130 calories, whereas a bowl of chicken and gnocchi soup has 250 calories? A really nice feature is that if you're a creature of habit who eats the same things over and over, you don't have to search the database every time; your most frequently used items appear in a list so it's fast and simple to just tap the right one and it's recorded. You can even create frequently used entire meals and save them.

You can download MyFitnessPal for Android, iPhone, and BlackBerry. It's free, but it does contain advertising. You can also enter information using your desktop or laptop computer via the MyFitnessPal website. Your information will be synchronized between the website, your phone, and other devices (such as an Android tablet). The website also has tips for losing and maintaining weight and staying fit, a blog with useful information, and community forums where you can share your fitness experiences with others. You can configure the app to post your exercise activities and milestones to Facebook, too.

MyFitnessPal app (screenshot by Deb Shinder for TechRepublic)

MyFitnessPal app (screenshot by Deb Shinder for TechRepublic)

MyFitnessPal app (screenshot by Deb Shinder for TechRepublic)

RunKeeper

My primary activity of choice is walking -- specifically, walking my dogs. For a long time, I estimated my speed and tried to remember to check my start and finish times so I could enter the information in MyFitnessPal. Then I found another free app called RunKeeper, which is not just for runners. You can select from a number of activity types: running, cycling, walking, swimming, hiking, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, elliptical, and several more.

The neat thing about the RunKeeper app is that it uses the GPS in your phone to track your time, distance, speed, and even your rate of climb in order to more accurately calculate the calories burned. You can enter anything you want in MyFitnessPal, and some people might be tempted to fudge on the numbers, but you can't cheat with RunKeeper.

It even gives you a nice map of your route with mile markers, so that you can see where you've been. You can share your route with other members of your "street team" -- that is, other people using RunKeeper that you can add or that the service can pick up from your Facebook friends list or email contacts list. You can also view a list of people nearby (based on your GPS information) who are using RunKeeper. You can configure who can see which parts of your information; for example, you might want to share your activity summary (how far you walked or ran) with everybody, but allow only members of your street team to see your route map, or you can restrict the maps so that only you can view them. You can have fitness alerts (for example, when you set a new personal record for distance, time, or speed) sent to your email address or shared with your social network.

You set up RunKeeper to verbally advise you of your current time, distance, and pace every 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 minutes, or when you reach a particular distance (such as every half mile). You can also configure it to post your activity summary to Twitter and/or Facebook, or link RunKeeper to your Foursquare, Withings, Fitbit, or Zeo accounts.

RunKeeper has apps for Android, iPhone, BlackBerry, and Windows Phone 7. The basic functionality is free, though it does require registration. When you log on to the RunKeeper website, you'll see a social networking type feed (FitnessFeed) that shows the activities of all your street team members. There's also an Elite subscription that costs $4.99/month or $19.99/year, and lets you compose advanced reports and broadcast activities and races live.

Start menu of the RunKeeper app (screenshot by Deb Shinder for TechRepublic)

Activities menu of the RunKeeper app (screenshot by Deb Shinder for TechRepublic)

RunKeeper app (screenshot by Deb Shinder for TechRepublic)

RunKeeper app (screenshot by Deb Shinder for TechRepublic)

Meal Snap

For those who don't want to be bothered with entering the names of their foods into a database, Meal Snap makes it, well, a snap to get a rough estimate of your calorie count by simply taking a photo of your meal with your smartphone's camera. Meal Snap uses the photo to match to its database (which contains about half a million food items) and then sends you a range of calories for the food item you photographed. It also provides other nutritional information such as proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.

This is not nearly as precise or as accurate as the calorie count you get from the MyFitnessPal database, since the latter is based on measured portion sizes and Meal Snap is guesstimating based on the photo. However, it's helpful for giving you a rough idea of your calorie count in those cases where you're unable or just not inclined to enter the textual information, or in those instances when a food item isn't found in the MyFitnessPlan database.

MealSnap is only available for the iPhone, and it's $2.99.

Other fitness apps

There are many more fitness-focused smartphone apps available, including:

About

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

6 comments
morta8
morta8

I think you should mention idoo, too. It' s really unique and one of it's kind, since it measures your performance as you work out. I use it almost every day with my Android powerd HTC but there's an iPhone version, too. http://idooclub.com

dmass
dmass

Is there really a version of RunKeeper for Blackberry? I can't find it anywhere.

Giph
Giph

More & more of these types of apps have been popping up & for me this sort of thing really makes a smart phone fun & justifiable. I have been using Cardio trainer for about 6 months now & love using it. It helps you track your fitness & logs it to google health, which I like since I have pretty much sold my soul to google already, why not fitness too. Seriously though I like having an online database of my fitness levels to refer to & compare with. Also, I have been following the google group page which is maintained by the developers & have seen them really respond to the community of users who have whined & been downright rude at times, but I have seen on several occasions the issues addressed fairly promptly.

DLogan@OmegaHealthCare.com
DLogan@OmegaHealthCare.com

Debra, I appreciate your fitness app reviews. I'm going to give these a try. On a side note, I occasionally have to prepare end user tutorials on company applications. I now find myself needing to prepare tutorials on mobile apps with increased frequency. What product did you use to capture your mobile screen shots?

davist@childrensfactory.
davist@childrensfactory.

Jefit for android is a nice free app I use for tracking my gym experience. I can setup daily routines, track my stats and track my increases, keep notes and logs, sync with the server, gives me a rest timer, and even pull down an add on that gives me a animations of the exercises in case I am curious about form. It may not be top of the line but it is free and works very well for me, combine this with Pandora and my workouts are wonderful.

adam.hooper
adam.hooper

I beleive there is a BB version of RunKeeper but I use edmundo and it works very similiarly. I also use the SparkPeople App on my BB.