New Times / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from New Times [newtimesslo.com] - Volume 27, Issue 26
Fat? There's an app for thatA couch potato delves into the world of smartphone apps to find fitness enlightenment
By MAEVA CONSIDINE
It was early one Monday morning during my senior year of college when I realized I had completely let myself go. I awoke to my alarm blaring some Bob Marley tune, which I no doubt chose in some pseudo-zen attempt to wake up relaxed. Instead, I found myself batting at the iPhone alarm on my nightstand, haphazardly knocking over empty Snickers wrappers and half-eaten Nutella sandwiches in the process.
I kicked back the few remaining drops of the previous night’s bedtime Red Bull, pulled my legs around to the floor, and my mattress sighed as I relieved it of my body weight.
Eventually, through sheer force of will and the promise of a Pop-Tart on the horizon, I got up and did what I do almost every morning: I walked past the bathroom mirror with trepidation, convincing myself that the figure in the reflection mimicking my every motion was some half-finished project I had been working on, but had to abandon for the time being for other more important things. What those important things were, I was never quite sure. Like a gutted motorcycle in the garage, it’s easier to throw a sheet over something and tell people (and yourself) you’re working on it. People always admire a project. But the figure in the mirror seemed to know I was full of shit, and so I’d guide my eyes to look in every conceivable direction but forward.
But this particular Monday morning was different. In my swift passing, I had accidentally allowed my eyes to drift forward and suddenly I was face to face with an unedited version of myself in the mirror.
I’ll spare you the details of the existential crisis that ensued, but suffice it to say an internal war began that day, and the holy land at the heart of the fight was my health.
The image I encountered was scary, and baffling, and new, and it was wearing the same pajamas as me.
And while the person staring back at me wasn’t put-a-paper-bag-over-it ugly, she wouldn’t have passed for a Jenny Craig “After” model either.
I was overweight, underwhelmed, and had pretty much laid down to quit at the quarter-mile mark.
I stood there for a few minutes, bombarded by all the new information my reflection was throwing at me.
I had to admit to myself that, like two-thirds of American adults, I was struggling with my weight.
And struggling isn’t even really the word to describe it, because struggling suggests I was fighting back against something.
I had let the weight wash over me like a fast-food tsunami.
Worse still, I had used up all those cute, worn-out euphemisms to describe my problem.
“You know how it is when you’re pudgy,” I’d say in between bites of my sixth Hostess product of the day.
“Oh … well, the Freshman 15 gets a little persistent sometimes,” was also something I said well past the 15-pound mark and into my senior year of college.
That morning, I knew it was time to drop all of that nonsense. The fact was that I was unhealthy, fat, and suffering from an addiction to food. And my relationship with food was definitely an addiction. How else can you explain the rush you get after that third slice of cake that your stomach tried so desperately to tell you was unnecessary and sickening?
I had to say the words that perfectly described what I was seeing in the mirror, and I had to accept that I wasn’t happy living a life dictated by laziness and Reese’s Peanut Buttercup cereal.
I cried a little, got angry, and then called the 24-Hour Fitness up the street from my apartment.
I started the gym the next day, and within a few months I had lost a significant and healthy amount of weight.
The people around me stoked my ego like a CEO stokes his offshore bank account.
I was wearing what I wanted to wear, telling my sweatpants collection to “Suck it!” and even gained enough confidence to attempt dating.
But some unfortunate medical luck (surgery had rendered my knee a slab of meat with mostly good intentions), a move, a new job, and the same laziness that got me into this mess all crept up (and really, not all that tactfully) on my hard work, and soon I was back to nearly the same place I started.
So here I am, a year and a half later, and not much has changed except for that fateful glimpse in the mirror that sent me on a soul-searching mission to find my health.
In recent months I have reminded myself that the best things in life often come with a free, complimentary struggle, and it took me years to build these bad habits, so it’s going to take me years to break them down entirely.
But this time around, instead of some huge shift in the way I go about my day, I have taken to making small and steady lifestyle adjustments using the small, glass- and plastic-encased device that is my constant companion: my iPhone.
Chances are if you were born after the Titanic sank, you too probably have a smartphone.
The gadgets do almost everything for us now. From e-mail to entertaining your toddler while you crack into your second afternoon bottle of merlot, the smartphone has, if we’re being honest, become more important than the Pope (although you can still follow him on Twitter).
The smartphone is the pocket-sized device of a million uses (Siri can even tell you where to conveniently bury a body), so it only makes sense that people are delving into the digital world of fitness. If it can educate your mind, why can’t it educate your body?
As of September 2012, there were more than 700,000 apps in the Apple Apps Store, of which 1,500 are fitness-based.
According to a poll conducted by The Huffington Post, 19 percent of smartphone users utilize health-based apps, and nearly 40 percent of those folks use at least one fitness-based app in an effort to get started on a healthier life path.
So you’re not alone if you’ve looked at your phone and said, “You can do more than just find me the nearest Dunkin Donuts.” People are getting hip to the benefits and—dare I say it—fun to be had while exercising with the iPhone.
And while the actual, long-term benefits of using a phone to get healthy are still up for debate among physicians and scientists, most agree that smartphone fitness apps are a good way to kickstart a healthy living campaign.
It’s impossible to give the American public a one-size-fits-all plan to eradicate obesity and its devastating effects on the body and the mind. But the smartphone comes pretty close to providing a tailor-made fitness plan that many, if not a vast majority of, Americans can adhere to long enough to get life-changing results that set them on a trajectory toward lifelong healthy living.
I took it upon myself to try some of the most popular apps on the market for several weeks at a time, and to track my results and thoughts about the apps in a journal.
Probably the app I was most excited to use, Zombies, Run is $3.99 in the Apple app store and sends the user on a full-blown chase with the undead salivating just feet behind you.
When I laced up my trainers to take my first jog with zombies, it occurred to me that this app probably has a backstory, which, for me, would be problematic.
I don’t know about everyone else, but I don’t really want to listen to an audio book while I’m trying to tune out the sounds of my panicked, shallow, labored breathing as I drag my out-of-shape body up some steep incline.
Still, I was willing to give it a shot since the app is created to support all levels of fitness (you can run, jog, walk, or even use a treadmill with this app).
Lo and behold, there’s a four-minute intro featuring British accents telling you something bad has happened in this township. Then there’s a confusing helicopter crash (and to be fair, it’s hard to hear over all that British accent when you’re trying to will the left lung that has just collapsed in your chest to start functioning again).
I wasn’t thrilled with the first four minutes of the app, but then the music from my iPod kicked in and there were suddenly zombies everywhere, stuff to collect, missions to complete, and I’ll be damned if I totally forgot my hamstrings were screaming for mercy underneath me.
My first zombie run was perhaps one of the most successful runs I’ve ever had. I would slow my pace to a fast walk when I couldn’t take it anymore, sprint when I felt a hungry flesh-eater behind me. I even grew fond of my British, post-apocalyptic tour guides who provided some comic relief at crucial low-stamina points in my run.
I stuck with this app on my runs for a week and a half. There are 33 missions and more than 45 run options, so you can theoretically find something new to discover for several months.
I gave Zombies, Run four bloody stars out of five. It can be fun for both beginning runners and people doing interval training or distance training.
The only downfall for people just starting an exercise program is those first four minutes of dialogue, which may deter someone who is expecting action right out of the gate; stick with it and you will be rewarded with the panic-induced adrenaline rush that comes with having someone who wants to nibble on your innards chasing you down.
My Fitness Pal
I maintain that one of the biggest health deterrents is having a large circle of friends. I know that sounds terrible, but there’s nothing worse than trying to maintain a healthy eating ritual when you have friends who love to see you and generally want to do so at a restaurant.
If you’re a food addict like me, having a friend ask you out to lunch can be akin to asking a speed freak to just duck into a crack den for a second and not buy anything. Sure, willpower can help you push through the dessert menu unscathed, but it takes the joy out of getting together with people.
Many folks have supportive friends who will go to great lengths to ensure you stick to your plan, but just in case you have the type of friends who love food and a good time (and let’s face it, those are the best types of friends), then My Fitness Pal is the app for you.
My Fitness Pal is a calorie and fitness tracker. It’s a pretty basic thing: You put stuff in your mouth, it tabulates how much energy that stuff is worth, and then you take a jog or garden (seriously, there’s an option for gardening on this app), and My Fitness Pal calculates how much of that energy you actually use.
I tracked my eating for two weeks. I logged everything with calories that went into my body and logged every time I did something physical.
The results (and My Fitness Pal has a great flow chart of your weekly and monthly eating habits) were … illuminating.
For the first week, I simply calculated. I didn’t adjust my food intake or increase my exercise. I just went about my cheeseburger-fueled, couch-loving life and tracked just how much energy I was expending and eating on a daily basis.
It shouldn’t have come as a shock, but I had no idea how many calories I was consuming. By all accounts, I should be 600 pounds and ordering someone to refill my Big Gulp from my permanent post on the couch. Not really, but my eating habits were terrible, and I had to face that with cold, hard mathematics.
The second week, I watched what I put into my poor, mostly dormant body and found that the accountability My Fitness Pal forced on me had some seriously positive results. I didn’t just mindlessly grab from the fridge that week. Instead, I would go to the fridge, pull out my phone, and try to control the shaking in my hand as I retracted it from the chocolate milk carton because, oh my god chocolate milk has so many calories.
My Fitness Pal is a great tool for people just starting to figure out that they may be eating more than they should, and moving less than they should, but it’s also a great app for people trying to maintain a weight loss or healthy living habits, because it keeps you accountable.
I give My Fitness Pal five passive-aggressive, do you really need the whole box of Cheez-its, stars.
I would caution that the app can be rather addicting, and you may find yourself becoming obsessive about your caloric intake. Remember, if you forget to log a piece of chewing gum, or an apple, the world will not stop rotating on its axis.
Cyclemeter is a good, straightforward app. Bike riding has been the only consistent form of exercise in my life for the last few years. I’ve always wanted a bike computer, but the cost and risk of theft deterred me.
Cyclemeter is a GPS app that tracks your ride. It’s simple, but the joy of seeing that you rode 30 miles in three hours can’t be articulated in this article.
You can listen to your music, check your speed and calories burned, see if there’s a better route nearby, and track all your rides for the month or year. Best of all, I get to fill my friends’ Facebook feeds with all the details of my ride, which they no doubt love.
There are no bells or frills to this app, and it costs $4.99, which is why I give it three sweaty stars out of five.
Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock
Anyone who’s gone and had a sleep study done can tell you that it’s damn near impossible to sleep with 560 electrodes, wires, and gauges clipped to various parts of your body. But recent science is telling us that sleep is a crucial part of someone’s ability to maintain a healthy weight.
Lack of sleep, poor sleep hygiene habits (which, as the name suggests, is a series of routines before bed that cleanse you of the need to be awake), and sleep apnea can all lead to obesity, high blood pressure, mood swings, and poor overall health.
And while it doesn’t take away the need for a sleep study, I found that the Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock app tracked my sleeping patterns in a more peaceful and natural way than sleeping in a strange bed while watching PBS prison documentaries at some sleep lab ever did.
The app monitors your sleep movements (you place it on your mattress) using the sensitive accelerometer in your phone, and then calculates the results and gives you an optimal bedtime and rise time for your sleep needs. As it turns out, the app confirmed what the lab had told me, which is that I toss and turn a lot, and as a result don’t always get the rest I need to fuel my willpower against Shamrock shakes at McDonald’s.
The app would eventually wake me at my lightest sleep phase, and it felt like a small, very well-mannered gnome coming to wake me gently every morning with songbirds and sunlight. This was a cataclysmic shift from my usual wake-up routine, which involved my alarm clock ripping me from sleep like a pair of tweezers applied to a misplaced eyebrow hair.
I give this app and all its sleep magic four incredibly well-rested stars out of five.
Couch 2 5K
If you’ve heard of any fitness app in the app store, you’ve probably heard of Couch 2 5K.
Couch 2 5K is a nine-week running program that everyone and their grandmother is talking about. I was most excited to try this app, but also mostly fearful of this app, because I have a hard time committing nine weeks to anything that doesn’t involve marathons of 30 Rock and those frozen, baked cheesy potatoes from T.G.I. Friday’s.
I very literally started this program from the couch. My exercise regimen at that point involved lifting myself to change the channel every time that really depressing commercial about shelter animals with Sarah McLachlan singing in the background came on, and then deciding that since I was already being so active, I deserved to get up and get myself a bag of Cheetos.
I was skeptical that any app could have me running 5K in six weeks.
But after the second run, I was hooked.
Couch 2 5K is a timed run, with intervals of walking, jogging, and a cool-down period. By week two, I realized that at any point prior to the program, if someone would have covered me in honey and released a bear, I would be dead.
Week three had me focusing on my running style and wishing there was less walk time and more run time on the program (the makers urge you to resist modifying Couch 2 5K, as doing so leads to backtracking and poor results). After nine weeks, I could run a 5K without stopping, and if someone released a bear, I would probably still die, but at least I would make the bear work for his meal.
I recommend this running program above all others for people who whole-heartedly believe they can’t run or aren’t runners. I learned through experience that our species was built to be swift on our feet, and anyone can learn to embrace running as an essential and even enjoyable function of physical and cardiac health.
I give Couch 2 5K four stars. There were some glitches and bugs in the app, but it was only $2.99, so I can’t really complain.
My documented journey through the app store has ended, but I’m always on the hunt for some new and exciting way to make exercise seem like, you know … not exercise.
There’s no way to tell what long-term effects this experiment has had on me; only time will reveal that.
For now, I’m a few pounds lighter, but my main goal in all of this was to keep myself accountable, engaged in the fight for my health, and honest.
I guess I’ve done all of that by baring my overweight soul in this piece. And if being a fat person in the 21st century has taught me anything, it’s that change is inevitable and technology is connecting us in meaningful and productive ways. I can only hope that if we are smart enough to create a device capable of delivering infinite knowledge at the touch of a button, we can also be smart enough not to kill ourselves over a comfortable love seat and a deep-fried Twinkie.
Calendar Editor Maeva Considine is trying to find her abdominal muscles. If you see them, send her a message at email@example.com.