TypewriterFrom The Urbach Letter March 2013

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Losing It (with an app)

If you're reading this in the United States, there's a 66%+ probability you weigh more than you should. You've heard the statistics: 1/3 of all American adults are overweight and another 1/3 are clinically obese (BMI over 30). It's a national epidemic and the health implications are devastating. Type 2 diabetes is rampant, heart disease is our number one killer, and many types of cancer are now linked to excess body weight.

A massively profitable weight-loss industry has expanded right along with our increasing weight and expanding waist lines. All manner of supplements, gizmos, books, plans, programs, and whatnot are pitched at us daily, inevitably promising more than they can ever deliver. People try one thing after another, usually ending up at the same weight when they started. But even if the results aren't there, desire remains strong. Nearly everyone wants to be thinner and stronger. So, what's next? It's March already. Summer will be here before you know it. Now's the time to make a REAL New Year's resolution and follow through on it. There's no approach to weight loss and fitness that's right for everyone but I'll tell you what worked really well for me.

First thing to realize is there ain't no magic to shedding pounds. You need to eat fewer calories AND up your activity. Of the two, calorie reduction is more important. Unless you can devote hours a day to vigorous exercise, you can't go on eating the way you do now and expect to lose weight. You've got to do both, so you're burning more calories than you're consuming. Simple to say, incredibly hard to do. Especially when the "math of fat" is so poorly understood, as visually illustrated in this infographic:

(click to enlarge photos & graphics)

Second thing to realize is that you need a coach. Your chance of successfully achieving your goal and maintaining your ideal weight is greatly enhanced if you don't try to go it alone. Your coach could be a personal trainer, a friend, or... the subject of this article: an app! There are several good web and smartphone apps available for you to choose from. The one I use is called Lose It! It's free, easy to use, and available on iPhone/iPad, Android (including Kindle), and simultaneously in your desktop web browser.

There's also a $40/year paid version -- Lose It! Premium -- which supports fitness-tracking devices such as Fitbit, Nike+ Running, the Withings Wi-Fi Body Scale and blood pressure monitor, etc., plus some other nice-to-have but not essential features.

An app like Lose It! may be perfect for you if you are already somewhat knowledgeable about nutrition. It doesn't tell you what to eat; it records what you've chosen to eat. Likewise, it won't tell you what exercise to do, it logs what you've run, lifted, etc. So here's an important disclaimer: if you're under 18, over 75, pregnant, have health challenges, eat junk food every meal, etc., then you really ought to work with a trained professional for step-by-step instruction, monitoring, and guidance.

However, most of us know what we should or shouldn't eat. We also know we ought to tie on the exercise sneakers more often. Where we need the most help is in the motivation department. Bear in mind though, there's a big difference between the motivation to start and the motivation to continue. Starting motivation can only come from within. If you don't recognize health and fitness as a worthwhile goal, then it's going to be tough sledding. However, once you make that giant leap to begin (the toughest part by far), the key to success is to just keep going, even when you hit some rough patches along the way. That's where a tracking app can really, really help.

There's an old saying, "You have to inspect what you expect." In this context, it means you have to examine and record whatever it is you choose to eat each day. Most people eat many more calories than they realize. That's why dieticians and nutritionists have their clients keep a daily log book of everything consumed. You could do that yourself, with pen and paper, consulting a calorie counter book. But that's not for me. I like a little "technology component" in everything I do. In this case, it makes it far easier, more accurate, even fun in a way.

Here's How it Works

There's a quick, painless setup process where you tell LoseIt! Your gender, height, birth date, current weight, and target weight. You can then specify your desired rate of weight loss (1/2 pound a week up to 2 pounds a week). From there, it determines how many net calories you should consume each day in order to reach that target, and estimates the date you'll reach it. For most folks, a pound a week is a highly achievable rate. It's one you're more likely to stick with over the long haul, and the pounds are more likely to stay off (radical diets nearly always fail).

Now it's up to you to log your food and exercise. Since you'll likely be interacting with the app several times a day, it's really convenient to have it running simultaneously in a web tab and on your smartphone.

Scanning makes it awesome
If you're eating something from a package, your smartphone's camera can snap the barcode and do a quick lookup of all the nutritional info for that item. Otherwise, you can just enter the food name in the app's search engine. It also has a big database of restaurant foods so those are easy to enter as well. (The database is, of course, geared to national chains but you'll often find something quite similar to what you're having in a local restaurant.) If you're cooking something from scratch, it's relatively easy to enter the ingredients, portion sizes, et cetera, and have that be available as a future selection. Lastly, you can manually enter calorie counts for the rare foods that aren't already listed. Likewise, your exercise activities can be selected from a big database and oddball ones can be entered manually once and then referenced over and over again. The app is smart enough to remember previous meals and sessions and suggest your favorites at the top when you search. You can also recall entire previous meals for quick entry (especially useful if you're an "oatmeal for every breakfast" type of person. Since you've also got to track what you're drinking, there's a comprehensive listing of beer, wine, and spirits.

Many folks prefer to keep their personal life private but plenty of others prefer to have a social component in their quest for better health and fitness. LoseIt! has lots of (optional) features to support that sharing. On a simple level, you can set it to automatically make selected updates to your Facebook and/or Twitter accounts. For example you can post the results of your weigh-ins (only gains or losses, not your actual weight), your exercise activities, and your goal achievements. But there are much more comprehensive social features built right into the app. You can designate one or more buddies and share things (progress, favorite foods, recipes, etc.) with them. There's a large community aspect with notifications and such. To up the fun quotient, LoseIt! also awards "badges" for various achievements. Silly yes, but motivational nonetheless. The Premium version also has something called "Challenges" that you can opt into. For example, there's one listed now called "Keep It Under! Summer 2013" This is a seasonal challenge with 2260 members participating. The goal is to hold each other accountable in a positive way and keep under the calorie limit at least six days out of every seven. Another is "Drink More Water" with 467 members (at least 80 ounces a day), "Summer 2014 Wedding" with 325 members, and "Okra Only" with zero members (OK, I made that one up).

The app has tons of summaries and reports with helpful info. For example, this daily summary shows what February 20th looked like for me:

And the weekly summary provides a good view of how you're progressing towards your goals, and shows a breakdown of your nutrients and exercise time.

I also want to show you what the Android app looks like (iPhone is very similar). As you go through your day, you can keep an eye on the "Under" tabulation near the top, which now shows 999 calories in green. That's how much more you can eat today and keep under your daily budget. If you go over, it turns red. That's a powerful motivation to log some exercise.

As mentioned, there are a number of other apps similar to LoseIt! They all operate under similar principles so the choice of which to use centers on more subtle factors. Many people like the app MyFitnessPal. It has a more comprehensive food database and some prefer its interface. Also, unlike LoseIt!, MyFitnessPal can operate with either metric or imperial units (which will be important if you're not in the US or UK). However, the MyFitnessPal Android app I tried had annoying, flashing advertisements (yuck) and overall, I just liked the look and feel of LoseIt! better.

Give it a try and let me know what you think. If you want to connect with me, search for my name in the Community area.


Another disclaimer: By necessity, this article is a simplistic treatment of a complex issue. Numerous factors can lead to weight gain, including genetics, eating habits, life stage, and more. Also, there are folks who legitimately need to gain, not lose weight, and others who have special life/health issues that are far outside the scope of this article. As always, The Urbach Letter is for "entertainment purposes only" and does not attempt to offer medical advice of any kind.

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(c) Copyright 2002-2013 Victor Urbach
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