By Brian B. Parr, Ph.D. ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist
When it comes to losing weight, lets face it, calories matter. Thanks to a host of wearable devices and mobile apps, counting calories has never been easier. Calories matter because losing weight almost always means cutting the calories that you eat and increasing the calories that you burn. The concept of “eat less, move more” is the foundation of nearly every effective weight loss program. In order to eat fewer calories and increase energy expenditure you need to know how many calories you are actually consuming and expending. While current technology allows you to easily track your activity and analyze your diet, it’s important to note that counting steps and tracking calories are just useful tools in your behavior-modification toolbox. Keep your eyes on the real prize – achieving healthy weight loss, and at the same time reaching a higher level of fitness and improving overall health.
An app a day…?
Today’s wearable devices and mobile apps let you track your weight, what you eat, and your activity fairly accurately. And, it seems a new one is introduced almost every day. Some apps measure the intensity of exercise by using GPS and accelerometer features of your phone or by syncing with a wearable bracelet or belt clip. Some measure heart rate to make the estimates even more precise. Using this technology, you can do everything from counting steps, to measuring how many miles you walk or run, and estimating how many calories you burn.
Other apps can help you track what you eat. Whether you are counting calories or are more concerned about the amount of protein or carbs you are eating, diet analysis apps can evaluate what you are really eating. Most require that you input the foods you eat and then the app calculates calories, nutrients, sugar, salt, and water intake based on standard databases. This is basically a high-tech version of keeping a food journal and having it analyzed by a nutritionist. The apps generally make this process more user-friendly – some even have a barcode scanner to make entering prepackaged foods easier. But to get accurate results, it’s important that you estimate portion sizes accurately – something that is challenging even for experts. That said, these apps can be useful for tracking what you eat to help you learn about your eating patterns to develop healthier habits or meet specific goals, such as eliminating added sugar or salt from your diet.
Full disclosure – there are some concerns about the accuracy of some of these apps and the potential risks of using unregulated health evaluation tools. Most utilize proprietary technology that can’t be independently tested and frequent updates make it difficult for exercise and nutrition professionals to keep up with evaluating these rapidly-evolving tools. In general, though, these devices and mobile applications are thought to be safe and effective when used for health and fitness purposes.
Knowledge is power
Activity trackers and exercise apps are especially popular for improving fitness and promoting weight loss through increased physical activity. You can think of increasing activity as a three-step process: Sit less, move more, and exercise every day. This technology can help you know what to do, when to do it, and how much you did at the end of the day. For many people, an accurate report of how many steps they took or how many calories they burned is helpful for gauging their success and identifying things they can improve.
Even if you aren’t concerned about exactly how many calories you burned in an exercise class or how many steps you took during the day, these devices can provide a clearer picture of your activity vs. your caloric intake. Many people are simply unaware of how sedentary they are during the day or are unrealistic about how intense their workouts really are. The technology can show you what you need to change to become more active or make your exercise program more effective – some will even alert you to get up and move if you have been sitting for too long! Tracking activity and exercise over time can also provide motivation to help you keep improving. Some allow you to share your information with others, providing a level of accountability that, for many, is essential.
Think Big: Turn Steps into healthy habits
While mobile apps and wearable devices can be useful, their purpose is to help you develop healthy habits that support a lifestyle that leads to improved fitness and healthy weight loss. If you become too focused on “micromanaging” your steps or calories you may lose sight of the “big picture” changes you want to make. For example, you should strive to be as active as you can throughout the day, even if you have already met your step or calorie goals. Real lasting results and behavior change, require constantly moving the goal line forward.
Keep in mind you don’t have to have the latest activity tracker or fitness app to meet your weight loss or fitness goals. Real success comes from making life-style changes that incorporate healthy eating and activity habits you can maintain without constant reminders. While technology can help you make these changes, it does not replace the dedication and commitment that’s needed to develop lasting eating and activity habits that promote good health.