Fitness Tech

Fitness Tools for Nerds

I’m about one month into my new health and fitness thing and making great progress toward both losing weight and getting more generally healthy. This time around, technology is a big part of what I’m doing and I think a big part of my success so far, so I wanted to share what tools I’m using (and some I’m not) and how I’m using them.

First off, however, is the magic formula for losing weight, which is what all of these tools are in service of. Seems obvious, but it bears repeating: 

You notice that there is no mention of ketone cycles, or carbs, or grapefruit, or pills, or shake weights.

It is simple, but, if you don’t know how much (and what kind) food you are taking in or how much exercise you are doing, you can’t follow the formula.

Before I get into nerd stuff, I should mention a couple of non-technology factors that are also helping me. The first is that I’m finally eating like a good vegetarian. I haven’t eaten meat for over twenty years, but I haven’t eaten many vegetables either. Now I’m trying to eat more fruits/vegetables and more protein (which is a challenge for vegetarians, even when they are not in muscle-building mode). It seems to be working and I feel great!

The other, most important non-technology factor is my wife, Rebecca. This kind of endeavor is always easier when you have a partner who’s doing it with you, and it has been infinitely easier with her going along with me.

One more corollary rule that has been very helpful to me: If it’s not in the house you can’t eat it. All we have is good stuff around us to eat, so we eat good stuff.

Ok, on with the nerd stuff…


iPhone – My phone is definitely the hub of my fitness activity. I’ve got a regular iPhone 4 and initially used it for both tracking food and for tracking exercise, but the fitbit has taken over most of my exercise tracking duties along with the Xbox (see below). Because it’s always connected to the Internet, has both GPS and an accelerometer, as well as a compass and a really nice camera, your iPhone (and presumably your Andriod phone) is a powerhouse assistant for losing weight and getting fit.

The last time I was seriously tracking my food and exercise, I was using a Newton. Go ahead, click the link, I’ll wait.

See, that was a long time ago! Your smart phone makes this all much easier. Pair it with clever apps and hosting your data on the web and your task really is easier than ever.

My fitbit greets me by name.

fitbit – This Fathers’ Day present has become one of my most valuable tools, not only for measuring my activity, but also for encouraging more activity.  The fitbit is basically a thunb-sized, high-tech pedometer, tracking your steps while you have it on your person (I keep mine clipped to the inside of my front pants pocket). As a bonus, it has an altimeter, so it also tracks any stairs or hills you climb.

The fitbit uses a USB cradle to sync and charge, but when you get close to the base station and stop moving (ie sit down) it will also sync wirelessly. Aside from syncing your data every once in a while (and occasionally freaking out when you forget that you put it in the opposite pocket), you really don’t need to do anything but wear it. This is the fitbit’s superpower. The best tools are the ones you use, and the ones you use are the easiest to use. Because I don’t need to really do anything, I haven’t missed tracking any of my activity since I got it a week ago.

The one fitbit feature that does need some manual attention is sleep tracking. When you go to bed, you clip your fitbit to a soft wristband that comes with it and press the button twice, holding it a second time. This tells fitbit that you’d like it to track your movement while sleeping. When you are sleeping deeply, you don’t move around. This allows fitbit to give you a report on your sleep patterns.

fitbit sleep record
I’m really good at sleeping!

All of your data is available on a web page with a nice on-line dashboard as well as being summarized on the fitbit itself.

fitbit activity graph

fitbit calorie graph

Seeing how close I am to goal throughout the day totally motivates me to get there (and beyond) every day. It’s made the same difference with exercise that tracking my food did for my diet.

You can set it up so that each type of data is visible to just you or to you and your fitbit friends, or anyone.

You can also use the fitbit website to track other things like blood pressure, heart rate, and measurements. I’m not tracking food on because I like MyFitnessPal so much. You can, however link the two so that MyFitnessPal shoots a summary of calories for each meal you log over to fitbit (with a nice, meaningful name), and fitbit sends activity information back to MyFitnessPal. Fitbit talks to several other on-line diet trackers/apps.

So, yeah. Still a bit pricey for some at US$90 on Amazon, but really worth it for me, especially in concert with the other tools I’m using.

Xbox 360 with Kinect – The Leckmans started to see the calorie-burning potential of the Kinect when we got Dance Central. While Annika breezed through, Daddy and Mommy were seriously sweating and sore after a few sessions (especially when I got stuck in a seemingly endless loop of “What is Love” alone one night…I’m still traumatized). But it was the addition of Ubisoft’s Your Shape Fitness Evolved 2012 (worst title ever!) that really gave me an appreciation for the real exercise potential of Kinect (more about YSFE2012 below).

Wii Fit Plus with Balance Board – Even though it’s not part of my current regimin, I wanted to give a shout out to Wii Fit. This was our family’s first fitness game and it’s still one of the best. Yes, you do need to hold a controller for many of the exercises, but two things still make this a better experience than even the Kinect: superior user experience and the Balance Board.

First off, the Balance Board is a wireless scale. Every exercise session starts with a weigh in and Wii Fit Plus automatically tracks your weight. Done. I miss this every day as I step on a regular scale and then type my weight in on my phone. Yes, you can buy a Wi-Fi scale (from the fitbit people, no less), but it’s US$130 and it doesn’t play games!

The Balance Board is also a character on screen who is your exercise guide for Wii Fit Plus (and plain Wii Fit before it). The on-screen Balance Board is friendly, encouraging and sports a kind of faux-AI that is, well…adorable. When you step on the real board to weigh in, it says “Oh!” Another great feature is the integration of a family’s Miis, which encourages you to work together and check on each other’s progress. If you have a Wii, and don’t have Kinect (or even if you do), WiiFit Plus with Balance Board really is great.

Can someone at least hack the Balance Board to work as a scale on my MacBook?!


myfitnesspal – For me, the first step was to start tracking my food. I wasn’t eating lots of processed foods, but I was eating too much and too much of it was made up of carbs and fat. I started off using FitClick, which was started as a free alternative to Weight Watchers’ on-line food tracking. After doing some more research, I installed myfitnesspal on my phone and set up an account on the website. I tried a few other apps (like LoseIt! below), but kept coming back to this one. Here’s why: entering food is easy.

Using the iPhone camera as a barcode reader works equally well in all the apps that include that feature, but the database they pull from makes a huge difference. myfitnesspal has a 98% hit rate for me so far. Every Trader Joe’s food item, every weird vegan protein powder from Whole Foods (I’ve tried several) and every “normal” food item from Albertson’s has been in there. The big caveat here is that I’m in the United States, and I think that contributes heavily to my success rate.

In addition to the huge database of foods with barcodes, there are tons of user-entered foods in there, both home-made and from restaurants. All Starbucks coffee drinks, for instance. The big win was when I found three lemongrass tofu bánh mì sandwiches in the database!

Myfitnesspal also has an easy-to-read summary of your total nutrition intake for the day, so you can see what types of food you should eat more or less of for the rest of the day to stay balanced.

Your Shape Fitness Evolved 2012 – This is the newest addition and I love it so far. When you  start the game, it recognizes you and scans you so there is always a video avatar of you on screen. It is really helpful to see yourself performing exercises, so you can compare yourself directly to the on-screen coach who is exactly the same size as you on screen. Clever. There are a wide variety of exercises that focus on different muscle groups as well as cardio workouts and more traditional dance-type and bootcamp workouts. I’m using Yoga as my base and adding other workouts to my routine.

Some exercises (like Yoga) overlay a simple 3D skeleton over your avatar to better show you how you are doing. The skeleton limbs turn green when you have them in the correct position/rotation/height. It’s basically this:

You also get plenty of audio feedback and encouragement with a slight Canadian accent which reminds you that this is a product of Ubisoft’s Montreal campus.

Ubisoft has set up a website called Your Shape Center where all of your data is collected and can be displayed on a dashboard.

I don’t think it will link up with myfitnesspal or fitbit yet, but it will be grand when it does! Until then it’s nice to have a record of my workouts that is not on my Xbox.

Fitbit Activity and Calorie Tracker – There is also a fitbit app to help you keep track of where you are with your exercise, but because the fitbit only syncs with the base station, not your phone, you may not be seeing the most up-to-date information on the app. I tend to look at the fitbit itself for quick checks while I’m out and about and the website when I want more info and history. What I do use the fitbit app for is recording my daily weight. You can log food with the fitbit app, but it doesn’t have a barcode reading function. Better to set up synch with myfitnesspal, and use it for food. Only a fraction fo the information available on the website is available on the app, so I assume it will get more robust over time.

Nike+ Running – I actually started with Nike+ back when it was a nubbin you put in your shoe and a dongle you put on your old school iPod. But it wasn’t easy to deal with and you had to buy special Nike shoes with a nubbin space in the sole (or hack your cheap shoes with an X-Acto, like I did). When Nike came out with Nike+ software for the iPhone that used the accelerometer, compass and the GPS together (using software technology called MotionX), I was all over it. The app is great. It tracks your run/walk on a real map and is accurate, even if your phone is is in your pocket. The only down side is that it only knows about running. A walk is a slow run and riding your bike is a fast run. Leaving it on in your car is a really fast run. There is no way to use it to track other activity types. You’d think at least cycling would be an option. I’ve used it less and less, especially since I got my fitbit.

So I just went for a walk and it looks like both the iPhone app and the website have been redesigned and it’s a huge improvement. Everything is still a “run” but the maps are really nice and there are good tracking and sharing options. I think I may go back to using Nike+ along with the fitbit so I get maps, too.

Still room for improvement and openings to build their user base, but still an opportunity for competitors to swoop in and do a better (but probably not as classy) job of tracking. Which brings us to…

RunKeeper – Beca and I started using RunKeeper because it does lots of things better than Nike+. It has multiple activity types, so we could track our bike rides and other activities. It also lets you share an activity with another RunKeeper user. So, if we both cycle together (almost always the case) and one of us forgets to track the ride, you can tell RunKeeper that you were with this other person (or people). That’s really nice. It also does mapping and has a good social implementation.

All was going well until we noticed some wonky numbers being reported back by RunKeeper. I know that to walk to Whole Foods and back is around one mile. Sometimes RunKeeper told me it was three miles. Huh? The culprit is the GPS. That’s all RunKeeper uses. So any interference throws off the measurement…like having your phone in your pocket. That’s why Nike is paying to license MotionX (which is part of the purchase price for Nike+). So for a week or so I was using both RunKeeper and Nike+ to double-check and Nike+ was right on every time and RunKeeper was wrong about 50% of the time. That was madness. So, I’ve abandoned RunKeeper for the moment.

Lose It! – Lose it is definitely the best looking tracking app out there and has a great interface. Unfortunately, the database behind it is not good at all. I had a terrible time getting my food entered in. Most of the food items in there are processed foods from big corporations. Lots of “diet” foods. The low point for me was when I tried to look up a grande Starbucks drip coffee. Not there. Search for “starbucks coffee” and you get back four kinds of coffee cake and 20 kinds of Coffee Frappuccino®, but no actual coffee. Boo.

It’s really too bad, because it really could be the best one.

Something all of these tools have in common is that they make this process fun and have goals and badges and other “gamification” traits that encourage forward movement. And damn if they don’t work!

The other piece they all share to varying degrees is a social component which I haven’t yet taken full advantage of. Fitbit should be posting my progress to Facebook and Twitter, but that’s really it right now.

I’ll update this post as I discover additional tools and have more time working with these. Hope it helps you with your own fitness plan, even if it’s still paper and pencil time for you.

1 comment on “Fitness Tools for Nerds

  1. Check of C25K too. Stands for couch to 5k. Beginner runner app.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: