Health and fitness app users hooked on workout trackers

  • Monday, December 3, 2012 10:00pm
  • Life

When Jon Mead, a devoted cyclist, visits a new city, he goes right to his smartphone app Strava to find the best bike routes. In Sacramento, Calif., where he works at a Fleet Feet running-gear shop, the 24-year-old uses MapmyRide to track his course in an archive.

Bethany Scribner, a runner who also works at the fitness gear retailer, likes the apps MapmyRun and Livestrong, which tracks nutrition in a daily pie chart showing fat, protein and carbs. Saucony Run4Good is a favorite, too, said Scribner, 21, because the company donates to anti-obesity programs for kids if enough runners cover enough miles.

MapMyRide, MapMyRun, Livestrong, Run4Good, MyFitnessPal: They’re all part of an exploding arena of health and fitness applications for smartphones. The trend, which falls under the umbrella of Health 2.0, an international tech movement grounded in San Francisco, is proving an obsession for programmers at code-a-thons, as well as users who get hooked on tracking their workouts, calorie intake and weight loss.

Among users, a pinch of competition — a social network of friends who sign up to share fitness scores — is all you need to make this an activity as addictive as Twitter is for some and Facebook is for others.

The Pew Research Center, in a new report titled Mobile Health 2012, found smartphone owners in the vanguard, with 52 percent gathering health information on their palm-sized, micro-computers. That compares to 6 percent of owners of regular cellphones, the report said.

They are also proliferating. Click on Apple’s health and fitness apps page and you’ll find iRunner, Fitocracy, Fitter Fitness, Fitness Buddy, Fitbit, Fitness Pro, miCoach, Abs Workout, RunKeeper, Virtual Trainer and about 250 more.

And it’s not just fitness. There’s a parallel world of apps geared to other aspects of health and wellness: iTriage, iFirstAidLite, InstantHeartRate, CuresA-Z, not to mention a host of downloadable apps such as OvulationCalendar that help women track their menstrual and fertility cycles. And, yes, there are apps with tips for carrying on when that fertility cycle is spot on.

The medical community is embracing the trend, holding contests to encourage programmers to design disease-specific apps that doctors can “prescribe” to patients with heart disease, diabetes and other chronic conditions.

The American Medical Association has launched its own consumer weight app, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the National Coordinator of Health Information Technology held a contest in July for the best app to help consumers identify and reduce their risk of heart disease.

The next phase is already in the works: apps that will transform your smartphone into a regulated medical device. Think phones as electrocardiography, or ECG, machines that can detect abnormal heart rhythms and determine if a patient is having a heart attack.

Such clinical apps will not go forward without approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration. Already, U.S. Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose, is working on a bill to establish a new FDA Office of Mobile Health designed to regulate health apps.

For now, most physicians are happy to see patients using simple apps to motivate them to exercise, eat well and lose weight.

MyFitnessPal has emerged as one of the more popular apps in this category, allowing users to set weight loss goals then diligently chart calories consumed, calories burned and poundage.

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