Advancing health through science, education and medicine

How a Smartphone Can Benefit Your Health

Feb 02, 2012

Written by Thomas Altena, Ed.D.

If you’re looking to be more proactive about your health and fitness, “there’s an app for that” rings true for you. Both iPhone and Android smartphone markets contain a cornucopia of health and fitness resources right at your thumb tips. These days, smartphone applications can measure distance and pace, provide weight training and flexibility routines, report restaurant nutritional information, offer daily healthy recipes and food ideas, predict exercise calories expended, plan daily exercise and diet, and even measure your heart rate. Some single apps combine exercise, diet, motivational tools and other information, so you don’t have to juggle multiple apps.

If you have never searched health-related smartphone apps, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the thousands that exist. You must first choose an app that meets your needs. Then you can become familiar with the features and maximize the functions you use. Some apps take considerable setup time—not only requiring personal information but goals and objectives as well—and some may require continual data input after eating or working out. Although smartphone apps* have potential as tools for maximizing our health, they should never replace fitness and nutrition professionals who possess knowledge and experience beyond what apps can provide.

Distance and GPS Apps
There are many apps for calculating distance that use a Global Positioning System, or GPS. The basics of these apps are distance, time and average pace, but some also estimate calories burned. Some of these apps are simplistic, but most have features beyond what most of us need. For Android phones, Endmondo Sports Tracker and iMapMyRUN are two apps that store workout history with personal best performances, and they also give you encouraging comments during your workout. Both link with social networking sites like Facebook so you can share your workouts with friends, and iMapMyRUN allows people to track their progress online with real-time maps.

There are two common problems with these types of GPS apps. First, satellite signals can be lost in wooded areas, tunnels, or even when phones are stored in pockets, so you could get an inaccurate data set for that workout. Second, a phone’s battery life is used more quickly when the GPS is activated, which could be a problem during extended workouts. Apple partnered with Nike to create an iPhone app that uses a sensor placed in Nike+ shoes. The sensor synchronizes with your iPhone or iPod, performing many of the same features as the others, and works with compatible Nike+ cardio equipment at the local gym. These apps will synchronize with music stored on your smart phone, and they will even select music playlists for motivation. In addition to the smartphone apps that detail distance, mapping programs like Google Maps are wonderful if you are exploring new places while walking, running, cycling or hiking. If you get lost along the way, maps and GPS tools are helpful for getting you home safely.

Noteworthy Distance and GPS Apps: iMapMyRide, My Tracks, iMapMyFitness, Cardio Trainer, Sports Tracker, cityRUNNER, pace calc

Fitness Apps
The choices also seem endless if you are seeking an app for resistance training and flexibility. Body Fitness and Jefit give you resistance training workouts, ranging from beginner to advanced, to meet your goals of general muscle toning or bodybuilding. These two specific apps provide workout information with sets and repetitions per exercise and also let you customize the app to meet your fitness goals. Two recommendations for these apps are: first, take plenty of time when you set up these apps with your personal information, goals and current fitness level; second, enter exercise data into the app after each workout is completed so it will continue to give progressive workouts over time. Both of these apps, and others like them, give users the freedom to choose which specific muscle groups they’d like to work on, and they will generate a list of exercises associated with that muscle group and the user’s goals. If nothing else, apps like these can provide additional information and stimulate workout creativity that could prevent workout stagnancy and ultimately increase fitness.

Apps directed towards flexibility also have many different options. The Yoga app gives yoga sessions on your phone, and there are other apps focused specifically on Tai-Chi. Stretch On-The-Go provides flexibility movements that can stretch a single muscle or region of the body, and it includes instructions, pictures and video depicting how the stretch is to be performed. Some flexibility apps offer a timer for each stretch.

Noteworthy Fitness Apps: Jefit, Body Fitness, Fitness Buddy, Yoga, Tai Chi

Diet and Weight Management Apps
There is no shortage of diet and weight management apps on the market. If you are concerned with the food you put into your body, one or more of these apps might be a useful tool to consult while grocery shopping, trying out a new recipe or eating out. Fast Food Calorie Lookup is a great app for anyone who wants to make healthy choices and monitor caloric intake with fast food. This app has about 140 different restaurants in its database and is constantly being updated. No food calorie app will have all the eateries in your city, but most chain restaurants are listed in Fast Food Calorie Lookup. Some seasonal specials might not be listed, though. For people monitoring their points, the Ultimate Weight Watchers Diary and Weight Watchers Calculator add up dietary points, exercise points and points remaining in your daily intake. When you are grocery shopping, WW ScanCalc will give you nutritional information based on a barcode then relate it to Weight Waters points. Further, there are apps with grocery lists and recipes for people on a diabetic or hypertensive diet. Be careful to not just trust the apps for the information but be a knowledgeable consumer, as some apps unintentionally misreport nutritional information.

Noteworthy Diet and Weight Management Apps: MyNetDiary, Calorie Counter & Diet Tracker

As you might assume, using your smartphone with various apps can make for a great training partner, give terrific workout ideas, provide valuable dietary information, or even find you a new cooking recipe. There are a few things you should note about using your smartphone for health and fitness, though. Using your smartphone as your music player during exercise can be enjoyable, but it can increase your risk of being distracted. If you carry your smartphone while you exercise, use a Ziploc plastic bag around the phone, so sweat won’t ruin it. Every fitness app will be better if you take the time to set up the app thoroughly. Finally, remember that smartphone technologies are wonderful tools to enhance your fitness, but they can never replace a fitness professional with years of accumulated experience, education and wisdom.

*Note: product reviews presented in this article reflect opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of ACSM.

View the full winter 2012 issue of the ACSM Fit Society® Page online.

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