3 Essential Health Trackers

3 Essential Health Trackers

Things are getting better all the time. That’s what they say isn’t it? I hear that song and  an LG commercial pops into my head. Technology makes everything better, doesn’t it? It can also make things more confusing and cluttered, especially when there are so many options. Every day as I read through the various blogs that I follow I see a new app or device touting that this one will make you lose weight, get in shape, and eat better. Now technology is my bread and butter, but here’s the reality:

No app or device can do that work for you. You do that work. You are the badass.

And you know what the best part about that is? You don’t need anything to help you do that work. Throw on a pair of shorts, an old t-shirt, and some kicks, and you’re ready to go. Hey, you can even workout in whatever you want so long as you don’t do anything to get the police called on you.

Although because I work in tech and get bombarded by this stuff all day long, I do have a carefully curated set of tools that I use daily to help me achieve my goals.

My Fitness Pal

What is it?

MFP in a nutshell is a food tracking app with a large catalog of products, dishes, and recipes. This was the first fitness and health app that I began using with any regularity and while it may not look as slick as any of the ubiquitous apps boasting pretty, colorful, flat ui, MFP has everything I need.

  • Large food database
  • Barcode scanner
  • Ability to create recipes and meals and/or add to the database
  • Separation between breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks with subtotals
  • Nutrition details for each food as well as your daily and weekly totals
  • Water tracking
  • Activity tracking with a database of common activities
  • Progress tracking and customized goals
  • Integration with other apps and devices like fitbit, runkeeper, endmondo, withings, and many others. More added all the time
  • Social integration
  • Much more

I primarily use the app on my phone, because that’s just what makes the most sense for my routine, but MFP began as an online tracker and there are even more features there as well as a huge and active community forum.

What else can it do?

When I was really on the keto train, the online version was especially useful because in the browser it allowed me to slightly modify what macros showed up. By default you track up to 5 metrics on your main dashboard: carbs, protein, fat (total, saturated, mono, poly, and trans), cholesterol, sodium, potassium, fiber, sugar, vitamin a, vitamin c, calcium, and iron. Pretty nice all in all since everyone has different requirements, but for keto I was missing two things.

Net Carbs and Daily Total Percentages

With keto specifically, although not exclusively, these are important metrics to have on hand. Although not all keto folks do net carbs (there’s quite a debate on the subject), I did. Yet even without that, having the running percent totals would be really valuable to keeping track of the macros that are so essential to keto and macro  methods like it. In the browser version, it’s possible to add those totals.

How? It’s very easy. I’m not going to repeat the steps here, but Cave Man Keto has a great guide on how to do this. If you’ve never done something like it, it might seem a little weird, but trust me, it’s just like a browser plugin. It works and won’t blow up your computer.

Weight Watchers

Net Carbs and Percentages aren’t the only thing you can add to MFP. Since I had a couple of friends who participated in Weight Watchers, I decided to check and see if there was a similar add on. Partially I was just curious to know if what I ate day to stacked up against the popular program points-wise at the end of the day. And of course, with very little searching, I found that there was another add-on which can be set to use either the new or the old weight watchers points.

This script can be installed exactly the same way as the Net carbs script although in this case you can have your nutrients tracked be whatever you want.

One word of caution is that at the present time, these scripts can’t be run together. It won’t mess anything up if you install them both, but if you have the net carbs script enabled, the points will not display for the WW points column. Hopefully one or both script authors will fix that!

Why do I use it?

I started using MFP because of keto, but also because food journaling just makes sense. The point is never to get obsessed over the numbers though, it’s to give yourself a really good idea of the habits you actually have. The very first time I was ever asked to document my eating, I brought the sheet with a week of meals back to my trainer. He took one look at it and said ‘You’re in love with the white devil.’ I knew exactly what he meant immediately and it was true. Bread, sugar, and pasta were my staples in life, although I’d never thought of how big a part of my diet they were before that moment. Tracking food is about insights. You could do it with paper, but electronic is more convenient, and MFP really fit the bill. I have looked at some of it’s competitors, but none of them ever gave me a big enough reason to switch. Too many bells and whistles and not enough well thought through features. Sometimes simple is better.

Fitbit

My Fitbit is a very new element of my arsenal. Previously I’d been using the manual activity tracking in MFP to record my gym time and other activity. I’d always been interested in sports trackers though. When the Nike thing that went inside special Nike shoes came out (I don’t even remember what it was called), I really wanted one. I didn’t even have a smart phone yet, but I wanted one of those. I’m glad I didn’t get one, especially with how expensive they were, but man, they were so cool. At any rate, it wasn’t until I did a lot of research and a few of my friends got them that I picked up a fitbit myself. Based on many reviews, I had been planning on buying the ill-fated Fitbit Force when things settled down after Christmas, but then the recall happened. I hemmed and hawed and then finally picked up the Flex in a pretty purple band. I was hooked.

What is it?

At it’s base, it’s just a fancy fashionable pedometer that syncs up with your phone and the Fitbit website. Based on the reviews I’ve read, it’s supposed to be very accurate and not miss or miscount other activities as steps. The only exception that I’ve read is for mothers pushing strollers. This action, I guess, keeps your wrist stationary enough that the flex can’t count your steps. That’s a real bummer for moms who probably hope that the fitbit can help motivate them get back into shape gently by walking with their little one. Fortunately with the flex you can pop it out of the band and put it in your pocket, although I can’t vouch for the accuracy that way. Anyone know? Fitbit also has the alternatives of the Clip and the Zip, which pretty much describe themselves.

What else can it do?

Fitbit’s real power is in its online charts and aggregate data. Your dashboard includes activity, steps, calories, distance, very active minutes, sleep, badges, food plans, water, and goals. Like everything else, it also has some social aspects to it including leader-boards that you can opt in or out of. Inside each of these features is further information and customization.

The activity tracker, for instance, not only shows your a graph of your activity for the day or any given time period, but it will show you how intense your activity was, and even allows you to log activity you might have missed. For instance, if you forgot your fitbit, but you want to log that you went for a 5 mile run that took you 60 minutes, you can, and while you won’t get steps for that activity, it will record the calories burned against everything else. Additionally, and what I find I use it for more often, you can log an activity that did have steps, labeling a chunk of steps as Zumba or Super Crazy High Intensity Hip Hop (not a class I actually take, but I wish it were). This is how I know that my Zumba class has around 5000 steps a class. Awesome.

The sleep tracking is cool, but after about 3 weeks of having my Fitbit, I’m not sure I need to keep it on my wrist at night. I sleep like the dead according to it and it doesn’t further analyze or correlate what I should be doing in terms of how many hours of sleep I should be getting to how well I perform. Maybe the premium suite does, but I’m not willing to pay for that.

One of its greatest assets, on the other hand, is it’s integration with other services. Although I only use it with MFP (so far), it integrates with a growing number of apps. Fitbit has an open API, so it’s easy for other developers to work with it and explains a lot of the popularity of the fitbit devices over other fitness trackers.

As far as the integration with MFP goes, it does a one-way-sync of food and water from MFP to Fitbit and a one-way-sync of activity and weight tracking to MFP. There may be a few other connection points between the two, but I’m still new to the integration. I will tell you though, this integration point is a huge selling point for me and keeps me routinely using both services.

One small disappointment, although I knew about this when I bought it, is that it does not track heart rate. None of the Fitbit trackers do, so the calorie counts are ballpark figures according to your height an weight. The moment the come out with one that does track heart rate, I’ll ditch my flex.

Why do I use it?

Similar to food journaling, Fitbit is about accountability. I think of myself as an active person even on non-gym days, but in the three weeks that I’ve had it, I’ve discovered that it just isn’t true. On non-gym days my step count is abysmally low, and while that’s not the end of the world it has told me something about myself and my habits. Because of the person I am, seeing the numbers daily has also motivated me to change those habits. With the nicer weather, that’s even easier since I’m much more likely to want to get outside now than I would have a month ago. Having my Fitbit has changed the way I perceive my active vs. inactive life, and that’s a valuable thing.

Ovuview

Quite a bit different than the other two, Ovuview is my cycle tracker. For those of you who have no interest in such things, you’re welcome to proceed down to the comments. 🙂

What is it?

Ovuview is a Menstruation/Fertility tracker. It keeps track of your cycles and a score of other symptoms and metrics that you might want to track around your cycle. It has two settings, one for avoiding pregnancy, and one for trying to get pregnant. While I’m not really using it for either of those purposes, the first setting works just fine for me to keep basic stats.

What else does it do?

Ovuview has a lot of options for metrics that you can track, most of which are around symptoms like cramps or nausea, weight, and of course the severity of your symptoms. The idea is to be able to get a complete look at everything that’s happening around and inbetween your cycles. In addition to the stock metrics, you can add a few symptoms of your own too, although the ones that exist already are pretty extensive. Ovuview also tracks moods as a separate feature which I’ve found to be somewhat helpful, but I wish that they were more customizable.

There are also a total of 17 ‘methods’ in the app which I think are very intriguing. Selecting a method determines how the tracker will help you predict where in your cycle you are and whether you are fertile or not. Some of the methods require temperature and fluid measurements and cannot be selected if you’re not tracking those things. Similarly some of the methods require a certain amount of consistency in your cycles or likewise you cannot select them.

My one complaint is that it does not integrate with other services. I would love to be able to look at this data directly alongside my data from MFP and Fitbit and draw some conclusions. I bet there would be some fun patterns to dig into.

Why do I use it?

As I mentioned in my previous post, my cycles have never been terribly consistent so it’s been important for me to keep track of them. The tool has now become indispensable when I talk to doctors about my experiences,  what I have taken on with my diet and exercise, and how those efforts seemed to be changing the pattern. It allowed me to really correlate what I was doing with the kinds of cycles and symptoms I was experiencing which in turn has motivated me to keep making positive changes. And when it’s time to be concerned with fertility, I already have a place to look and a history to fall back on.

Anyhow, that’s my current arsenal. What are your favorite trackers?