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Use Your Smartphone to Help You Stay On Track!

So, you’ve resolved to become healthier this year. How are you going about fulfilling that promise to yourself? And more importantly, how will you know that you’re actually working to make it happen? This is where keeping a journal can be important. Just like balancing your chequebook or looking at the progress of your RRSP, taking the time to make note of your progress is important to making that progress.

What does this mean in a fitness context? Well, the “quantified self” movement is gaining popularity for those looking to approach their health from an evidence-based, data-driven perspective. Rather than doing a bunch of research on what works for the general population in terms of health maintenance, “quant-selfers” research themselves rigourously as individuals. They take daily readings via devices like the Fitbit, or using apps on their smartphones, to measure how much activity they actually do in a day or how many hours they sleep. They then take notes on how they feel that day, how much they weigh, how productive they were, and so on. This translates to a personalized profile of health that can be shared either with doctors and personal trainers, or among social networks (or both).

Why pay such close attention to things like caloric intake? Well, in a 2008 National Institutes of Health study research participants on a diet who kept a food diary lost twice as much weight as those who kept no track of what they were eating. The reasons for this are complicated: some people need to see how many calories they’re ingesting before they understand the need to burn them efficiently. For others, the numbers might have less meaning. What does seem to hold true is that keeping a food diary helps diarists to be more mindful about what they are eating. A reality check is still a reality check, no matter how you think about calories.

Of course, food diaries and calorie tracking are only part of it. As Dr. Yoni Freedhoff points out, you aren’t a walking math formula. Some calories make us feel fuller, so we eat less. Some are easier to burn. And some people have faster metabolisms than others. But food and activity diaries are still useful to people like our personal trainers, who can use your records to help you stay on track and meet your goals.

To that end, we’ll be reviewing some food diary and activity diary apps over the next few weeks. First up is My Fitness Pal, a free app and website available for iOS and Android platforms. Last year, Consumer Reports scored it 83 out of 100 based on a survey of over 9,000 readers. That’s a higher score than Weight Watchers, which is a common favourite.

My Fitness Pal is a bare-bones app — it’s not particularly pretty, but it is very easy to use and offers basically instant use without much learning curve to worry about. Users give their gender, age, weight, some information about lifestyle, say how often they would like to exercise and for how long, what their goal weight is, and whether they intend to lose, gain, or maintain weight. My Fitness Pal then generates a caloric budget for them to play within. Adding activities means earning extra calories. Adding foods to the food diary means losing them.

The service has partnered with multiple brands, restaurants, and food manufacturers to offer nutritional information on prepared foods, restaurant meals, drinks, and serving sizes. This makes adding foods to the food diary quite simple: chances are, My Fitness Pal already knows how many calories are in your favourite snack-size cup of yogurt, and helpfully divides meals into Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and Snacks. Every day, users can look at a pie chart that displays where the day’s calories are coming from: carbohydrates, protein, or fat.

If you want to add your own recipes, the app makes it easy — if a little time-consuming. Depending on the complexity of the dish you try to add, you may be stuck adding small measurements of multiple ingredients. But if you want to know how many calories are really lurking in your favourite soup, smoothie, or salad, it’s invaluable.

The same philosophy applies to how My Fitness Pal tracks exercises. You can add things like “Cycling, stationary, vigorous effort,” and then add how many minutes you were active and receive an estimate of calories burned, or add data on calories burned directly from the machine. If you wear a FitBit or other device, it can send data directly to My Fitness Pal. Daily, weekly, and monthly reports are available, and they can be printed off for your personal trainer or doctor.

It may seem a little strange or even self-absorbed to be paying such close attention to your input and output, but keep in mind that accomplishing your goals means being honest with yourself and your trainer. Paying close attention to your food and activity is a way to pay attention to your own health. And if you stick with it, you might notice certain trends — like which foods give you heartburn, which exercises you have the easiest time finishing, and whether you’re happier with three meals a day or five mini-meals. This is all important information for helping yourself become the person you want to be.