Health Apps: Are They Worth the Download?
May 16, 2016
After spending time with 5 health and fitness apps, dietetic intern Brenda Wong shares her experiences with each to help you decide if they're worth the download.
With the advent of technology and the popularity of smartphones and other devices, health apps theoretically have the potential to revolutionize the general public's approach to health and introduce and sustain positive health behaviors. The "Health and Fitness" apps in the Apple App Store and Google Play Store rack up millions of downloads. A majority of the popular apps in this category generally have to do with tracking exercise or food intake. With these apps available, (some free, some premium, and some even attached with pricey subscription packages on top of that), it may be difficult to decide which ones are worth the download (or upgrade to the paid version) and to gauge how effective the apps are in promoting health behaviors.
I tested out a few popular apps from the App Store and Google Play, dedicating at least a week of usage to each.
What is it? A food tracking app that goes beyond just simple calorie counting. Similar to MyFitness Pal, Fooducate is also a website and has a respectable user community available for social support. You need to set up an account with email or social networking to use Fooducate, and you must be connected to the Internet to use this app.
Worth the download? In short, yes. Even if tracking your food consumption is not your thing, the daily tips/articles alone offer up a steady supply of valuable and relevant food and diet related information.
Every food item is given a letter grade from A to D. From the items I looked through, the rationale (based on nutrient content and the ingredients list) behind the grading system sounds legitimate and appears to be accurate, notifying users whether a food contains fiber, certain vitamins, added sugars, etc. A very welcome surprise is that Fooducate goes beyond their grading system and even offers up healthier alternatives to the food you search for, with grade comparisons. Users can comment on entries regarding their food preferences or accuracy of the information provided and can help correct inaccuracies by sending in photos of the food items' nutrition facts labels or ingredient lists (avoiding the pitfalls of direct user-generated edits).
The bar code scanner is handy when grocery shopping, and the ability to look up commercial, restaurant, or even user-added food items can certainly help in a pinch when deciding what to order, buy, or eat. Users can add food items to their meal either by volume or serving size, set their own goals or limitations, and track their numbers throughout the day. The search can get over saturated with foods added by users, but thankfully it can be filtered based on grocery store or restaurant items.
Upgrade? Although there appears to be a premium version of Fooducate (there is an option to "Unlock Premium Features" within the app), all of the purchasing options are grayed out and not available, perhaps suggesting that all contents of Fooducate are free.
Keep or Delete After One Week? For me, delete. While the bar code scanner is fun to play around with on occasion, the key point is just that: food tracking is a difficult habit to develop. As someone who does not track my food intake, I used the app inconsistently throughout the week I tested it and only occasionally used it beyond that to either play with the bar code scanner or check the daily tips. After the novelty of the scanner wore off, I found that I could access the daily tips on the website and didn't need the app itself anymore. This isn't to say that everyone should delete Fooducate. For those who like to track their intake, count calories, or want to start building that habit, along with its strong social community, user-contributed recipes, and full website, Fooducate is a well developed food tracking app that can absolutely make the whole process easier.
What is it? An exercise app. You need to set up an account with email or social networking to use 8fit, but you do not need Internet access to use the app. When first running the app, it asks a series of questions regarding body measures, activity level, and overall fitness goals. In addition to height and weight, it asks about body fat content, using images of men or women's midsections to help users determine their own size and shape. There is a fitness test to assess level of activity, however the tailored exercise plan the app proposes according to your level requires an upgrade to the pro version. The test is more suited for you to view your own fitness capabilities (or even functions as a quick workout if you're pressed for time). Available to the free users are three 2-week exercise programs of varying intensities, with minimal equipment (a sturdy chair, table, and optional dumbbells). Each program consists of six workout sessions varying between 5 to 30 minutes.
Worth the download? Absolutely. 8fit encourages working out 4 times a week and even tracks the workouts on a calendar. The workouts start with an optional warm-up session (perhaps only 3 minutes) that gets the heart rate up and ready. The workouts are composed of various exercises (with looped videos showing proper movement and form) performed either for a set number of time or for a set number of reps, with the circuit repeating until the time is up. There is also an option to add in your own activities, such as running or swimming, so you can track your physical activity. The app provides estimated calories burned during each workout and calculates change in body fat percentage and body weight based on these workouts. While it's cool to see the numbers go down as you use the app, I am skeptical about its accuracy, but perhaps the pro version legitimizes this process with its nutrition and meal planning features. It is refreshing to see meal planning and nutrition in an exercise app, yet disappointing that at least some aspect isn't offered in the free version of the app. I can see the value in the meal plans, but even for those unwilling to upgrade to pro, the physical activity tracking and workout options are reason enough to download the free version.
Upgrade? Compared to a gym membership, 8fit might just be worth the upgrade. Currently, a 3 month subscription is $25, a 1 year subscription is $60, and a 1 year subscription with a personal trainer was on special for $59.99. The paid version includes more exercise plans, which for me means more variability and less of a chance of getting bored and quitting. The pro version also offers meal plans for breakfast, lunch, and dinner with hundreds of recipes including some ingredient swaps in case certain ingredients aren't on-hand.
Keep or Delete After One Week? Keep. After completing all three levels of the exercise programs (the last of which was a doozy), I can say that 8fit is a solid app with enough variability in activities to keep interest.
What is it? A water tracking app. Similar to food tracking apps - only much, much simpler - Plant Nanny is like Tamagotchi but requires less time and attention. As users drink water, they can "water" a selected plant buddy with the volume they drank to make their plant grow. If users don't track their intake or drink too little water, the plant wilts and looks very sad. The app provides users with a suggested daily water intake based on height and weight, but it neglects water intake from food. I've found this value difficult to attain without feeling bloated or having a strong urge to relieve yourself every hour or so.
Worth the Download? Yes. This app took me by surprise. Initially, I thought its motivating factor to drink water was relatively low. Aside from watching your plant grow and keeping it happy, there is not much to do - and it is in this simplicity that Plant Nanny works. The plants, which admittedly start out looking adorable as little buds, begin to look strange and ridiculous as they grow. I did find myself drinking more water more frequently just to see how odd my plant would look as it leveled up. Eventually the plant reaches its full potential and can then be transferred over to the garden, where it produces special seeds that can be used to unlock different types of plants to be planted and watered. I drink water, they grow, I drink more, rinse, and repeat. It is certainly worth the download if you are terrible at drinking consistently throughout the day. There is nothing but the honor system to ensure that the water I gave my plant was water that I actually drank, but if you are trying to help yourself stay hydrated, there is no real reason to "cheat" just to improve numbers. While I don't agree with the suggested daily water intake, I can say that Plant Nanny did motivate me. I drink more water more frequently throughout the day.
Upgrade? Plant Nanny is free to use, but it does offer some freemium features. Seeds (the in-game currency produced by fully grown plants and can be used to unlock more plants, backgrounds, pots, or make plants grow faster) are available to purchase at $0.99 for 100, $2.99 for 600, and $9.99 for 3000.
Keep or Delete After One Week? Keep. Out of all of the apps I tested out, Plant Nanny was the one I opened most frequently and used the most consistently. It is silly, but for me it worked and required minimal time commitment. I typically chose to water my plant all the water I drank for the entire day all at once at the end of the day (not a good practice for real life plants). There is also a nice selection of various mugs, bottles, and other containers with customizable volumes for each to make tracking easier. One caveat, however, is the volume ranges between 3 oz to 16 oz, and while I can play around with the values, having the ability to input an exact volume would be more accurate.
What is it? A running app - with a story. Runners can not only track their runs by either GPS (meaning the app is compatible with other activities such as biking or skating) or step counter (ideal for treadmills or jogging in place), but they also become fully immersed into an eerily compelling story about a zombie apocalypse. The story unfolds with the user crashing down from a helicopter into an area populated by zombie hoards and other characters communicating with you via radio. There is an option to create an account using email to better track your progress, view more complete run statistics, backup save data in case something happens to your device, and other features, but it is not a requirement to use the app.
Worth the Download? Yes, for avid runners and even occasional walkers alike. The story is spaced out throughout the run, with the user's personal music playlist playing when the the audio is not. The audio and sound effects are so genuine, it is easy to forget they aren't real. Structured as "missions," individual runs turn into runs for survival, even providing users the option to turn on "Zombie Chase," a constant, heartbeat-like beeping warning (thankfully not as terrifying as zombie moans and groans, but still enthralling) to prompt users to run faster lest the zombies catch up. Although it is called Zombies, Run!, walking is still a perfectly fine option, but "Zombie Chase" should be turned off. Each episode, or running session has a set time that can be adjusted to make it last between 20 minutes to 1 hour and 25 minutes. If 20 minutes is still too long, there is a pause button that allows users to stop and resume the run whenever they wish. As users move throughout their run, they randomly acquire supplies and materials which can be used as a currency in the game portion of the app to expand upon and upgrade the township (the survivors' base). While this is a cool way to motivate the user to run more, the gameplay and interface seems uninteresting - a stark difference from the compelling audio missions - and I never felt the desire to play with this feature.
Upgrade? It really depends on how invested you are in the storyline and how often you run. A 1 month subscription is $2.99; 1 year is $19.99. The Airdrop ("Recover a supply drop by running to a point in the real world!") and Interval Training features do require Pro membership. But all four seasons (with more coming online), with over 200 episodes/missions are technically free to all users. The first 4 missions are automatically unlocked but each subsequent mission takes 6 days to unlock. It is also important to note that the Pro version is not a one-time purchase. Zombies, Run! offers unlimited access to all 200+ missions on a subscription basis so if you plan to run more than once a week, consider how often you will use the app and how quickly you can get through the missions before deciding on a subscription package.
Keep or Delete After One Week? With a new mission each week and a thrilling story to hook me in, I'm keeping it. Even with the 6-day wait time, there is a fair amount of replay value in Zombie's, Run!. All unlocked missions, extra runs, races, and can be used as many times as I wish, and there is still the supply collecting and gaming aspect of the app to help me bide my time for the next mission.
What is it? A meditation app that helps you "train the way your mind works" for a "healthier, happier, more enjoyable world." With the pleasantly soothing audio stylings of Andy Puddicombe, meditation expert, users can take part in the free Take Ten program to introduce them to the process of meditation.
Worth the download? Maybe for some, but not for me. At least in the free Take Ten program, each audio session is scripted virtually the same way, perhaps due to the whole process of meditating requiring the same actions - get comfortable, breathe deeply, close your eyes, and focus on the physical sensations of your body. The problem is that nearly every time I used this app, I did so at night prior to going to bed and ended up falling asleep. To be fair, the expectation is that these sessions are taken during the day, most likely in a seated position. Still, there is no rule against meditating before or while already in bed. Breathing deeply and allowing my mind to wander did manage to take me from various states of mind (tired, anxious, restless) to a stage so relaxed that I was able to doze off to sleep without realizing it. As a sleep aid, Headspace was pleasantly effective. But when I actively made an attempt to use the app as intended and really focused my mind (albeit while standing in a subway train on my commute to work), the "training" sessions became less relaxing and more mentally draining so that I did not want to think about anything for the rest of the day.
Upgrade? No. I am curious what the Health, Performance, and Relationship programs entail, but subscription costs $12.95/month, $7.99/month for a year, or $419.95 for lifetime usage, prices that are much too steep for me, at least until I am able to see results from the Take Ten program.
Keep or Delete After One Week? I kept it for two weeks to complete the 10-day Take Ten program, but deleted it afterwards. I wanted to like this app, and in theory (or perhaps even in practice and proper usage) it should work. I'll concede that I probably misused the app as a sleep aid and my main gripes about the app - repetitiveness and mental drain, both standard of meditation techniques in general - have nothing to do with the app itself. Isolating the application from my own bias towards meditation, Headspace runs smoothly, provides a pleasant audio, and seems rooted in a very fascinating concept to train your mind for "a healthier, happier, more enjoyable world" covering several aspects of life.
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