Five years ago, no one had ever heard of an app. Now, there are more than 200,000 available for the iPhone alone — not to mention another 60,000 in the Android Market and 7,800 for BlackBerry fans. And more are added every day, making it nearly impossible to sort out the good from the bad and the just plain silly.
To help make at least a little sense of this chaos, we canvassed our power-user friends, conducted hands-on tests, and perused Web reviews to see what most folks seem to like (and dislike) about the current crop of health, fitness and healthy-living apps.
In truth, we were underwhelmed by much of what we reviewed. Although this new breed of tool has immense potential (we’ll be seeing more of that, no doubt, as new tablets like the iPad kick into high gear), right now there’s more flash in most apps than there is truly helpful functionality. Between the kinks that need working out and the content that needs beefing up, there are as many disappointments as there are delights.
That said, we were still excited by the insights that some apps delivered, and enthusiastic about the idea of being able to access and store so much data in such handy, eminently portable little packages — most of which cost less than 10 bucks a pop, and some of which are free.
The real value, of course, comes in time saved, mistakes avoided, choices clarified and motivation harnessed. Since all that is a matter of personal preference and practice, no single app is going to work for everyone. Still, for health-motivated folks interested in downloading some decent digital help, here’s a quick roundup of some representative apps we found worthy of a closer look.
Keep in mind, the world of apps is changing daily, so check individual app sites for current version and platform information. And share your latest app discoveries in the comments section below this article.
iPhone ($9.99), www.runkeeper.com
A cheaper alternative to a sports watch, RunKeeper Pro lets you track your distance and pace via the built-in GPS on your iPhone. You don’t even have to look at your phone — the app announces this information through your headphones at regular intervals.
- Uses your phone’s built-in GPS to track distance, time, pace/speed and estimated calories for runs and bike rides.
- Displays real-time pace and average pace in large, easy-to-read numbers.
- Collects and stores workout data.
- Integrates with Facebook and Twitter so you can share your exercise triumphs.
- Plays music directly from your iPod playlist.
Pros: The “target pace” functionality is super motivating — simply enter your desired pace, and the app tells you if you’re falling behind. You can also view charts at RunKeeper.com that illustrate your monthly or weekly exercise performance. In our tests, the distance and pace information was just as accurate as that on our pricey GPS watches.
Cons: RunKeeper Pro relies on a GPS signal, so some users may have better satellite reception than others. And exercise-wise, an iPhone isn’t as convenient as a watch, so consider investing in a sturdy armband.
iPhone ($1.99), BlackBerry ($3.99), www.medicalprod.com
With a catalog of more than 300 exercises, iFitness is a favorite among beginning and intermediate-to-advanced weightlifters. It divides exercises by muscle group, making it easy to put together a great core, upper-body or lower-body workout.
- Includes pictures and step-by-step text descriptions for all exercises, plus more than 200 videos for complex moves.
- Offers 20 complete workouts designed for beginners, serious weightlifters, women or business travelers.
- Tracks your progress by logging the sets and reps performed and weights used, displaying this data in a graph for each exercise.
- Allows you to export your workout logs via email.
Pros: We like that you can sort exercises by the equipment you have on hand (or are willing to use). The instructional videos load quickly. The wide range of exercises helps ward off boredom.
Cons: The workout log is extensive, but when you view the totals, each exercise is displayed individually. We would like to see a quick overview of the type of activity for any given day (total minutes of cardio, for example), in addition to the totals for individual exercises.
iPhone, BlackBerry, Android, Web (Free), www.everytrail.com
Walking and hiking are both health-boosting, stress-reducing exercises, but it’s not always easy to find a good trail. EveryTrail helps solve that problem with a database of more than 200,000 user-submitted trails.
- Contains satellite maps, directions and user ratings for each trail in the database; some entries include pictures and helpful tips.
- Saves your favorite trails for quick reference later.
- Tracks your hiking route and displays it on a map, which can then be shared with friends via Facebook or Twitter.
Pros: EveryTrail contains some trips and trails you won’t find in any guidebook, so it’s a great way to get off the beaten path, particularly when you’re out of town and in need of a quick hike. The maps are easy to view.
Cons: Some of the user-submitted trail listings are more detailed than others. The free version contains ads, but you can upgrade to the ad-free version for $3.99.
THI PERSONAL TRAINER
iPhone ($0.99), www.scoutingsolutions.com
This app offers 20 strength-training programs designed by certified trainers — basic routines that are great both for those new to weightlifting and for hardcore lifters who want to regularly swap out their routine. Unlike the iFitness app, THI Personal Trainer provides a little more structure that is helpful for beginners. For example, instead of simply giving you a list of exercises to perform, THI breaks down exactly when to do what — warm up for three minutes, do one set of 15 reps, rest for three minutes, etc.
- Includes predesigned workouts plus video illustrations for nearly 150 individual exercises, like hamstring curls, overhead squats and shoulder raises.
- Lets you log sets, reps and weights used for each exercise.
- Shows the muscles targeted in each move.
- Records and displays in graph form the maximum weight used for each exercise and the total volume of weight moved (based on how many sets and reps you completed).
Pros: The programs are great for beginners, but there’s enough in this app to keep advanced lifters satisfied, as well. You don’t need Internet access to watch the videos, which is great news if you don’t have reliable cell service in your gym.
Cons: Personal Trainer is a large app (nearly 40 MB), so it takes a while to download. It doesn’t let you sort exercises based on the equipment you have on hand; assumes there’s a full weight-room setup.
iPhone ($2.99), www.pocket-sports.com
With the Pocket Yoga app, there’s no reason to miss yoga just because you can’t make it to class. The app offers 27 yoga sessions with instructor voice-overs and animated illustrations.
- Includes yoga sessions in three different lengths for beginner, intermediate and expert yogis.
- Offers detailed instructions on 145 individual poses for those who want to create their own workout.
- Describes the benefits of each pose and the muscles it strengthens.
- Tracks your completed sessions under the “history” tab, so you know which ones you’ve already done.
Pros: Pocket Yoga has a nice interface, with lush illustrations and relaxing background music. If you have to leave the app, it remembers where you left off in the session.
Cons: Beginners may find that the instructor moves too quickly. If so, press the pause button to regroup.
More to Try:
iPhone, Android and BlackBerry users should check out AllSport GPS, another GPS app that tracks pace and distance for running or cycling. We also like GymTrainer for the iPhone, which offers 30 strength-training workouts.
Nutrition and Healthy Eating
iPhone (Free), www.loseit.com
This app offers a quick way to track your food intake when you’re on the go. It gives you a fairly simple way to log your exercise and calories burned, helping you see at a daily glance the amount of energy you’re taking in versus putting out.
- Offers an extensive database of foods, including a wide variety of whole foods (proteins, vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains), as well as an even more extensive array of processed and restaurant foods (most of which we recommend avoiding!).
- Based on your entries, the logging system tallies your daily calories consumed and reports on your intake of protein, fat, carbs, sodium, fiber and some other key nutrients. It also lets you log daily activity and exercise to calculate caloric excesses or deficits.
- Exports your data to Excel.
Pros: The database of foods is extensive and lets you create custom foods (like your favorite morning smoothie) and choose specific portion sizes. Logging your intake can help you see where empty calories might be piling up. Logging activity and seeing calories burned may motivate you to move more often.
Cons: We’re not fans of counting calories as an ongoing weight-loss strategy, and while logging your food intake can be initially helpful in identifying food patterns, we think doing this with any app would get very old after a while.
iPhone ($2.99), www.enjoymentland.com/locavore
The Locavore app helps you find the freshest local food by telling you what produce is in season in your area now. The app is easy to use, offers a great reminder about the importance of eating seasonally, and may inspire you to try more kinds of seasonal produce than you otherwise would.
- Uses the iPhone’s built-in GPS to determine your location.
- Lists the fruits and veggies in season in your area, including everything from turnips to summer squash; an icon next to each listing shows how long until that item goes out of season.
- Includes links to recipes using seasonal ingredients and a listing of nearby farmers’ markets.
Pros: We were surprised to discover new farms and farmers’ markets in our area. The app also lists fruits and veggies that are coming into season soon, which is useful for planning ahead.
Cons: The recipes look great, but the detail pages are not optimized for the iPhone’s screen, so be prepared to do lots of scrolling.
iPhone ($3.99), www.webartisan.com.au
The FDA has approved an eye-popping 3,000 additives for use in our food. The Food Additives app analyzes more than 450 of these, offering a color-coded system indicating whether the additive is considered safe — since many of these additives have been linked to allergic reactions or other health issues. Data is compiled from various agencies, including the FDA and governmental food agencies in Europe and Australia.
- Allows you to browse additives by name, number or risk level.
- Includes the origin, function and product uses for each food additive, in addition to potential side effects and a maximum daily intake (if established).
- Groups all animal- and insect-derived additives into one list — a great resource for vegans and vegetarians who want to avoid animal-derived ingredients of all kinds.
- Links to Wikipedia articles, in case you want to learn more about a particular additive.
Pros: This app is a real eye-opener. We found butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) in a frozen pizza, and the app promptly alerted us to some health concerns. While the information may be too technical for some, we found it very useful.
Cons: The Food Additives app was developed in Australia, so it uses a European numbering system to identify each additive, although the names are the same as in the United States.
iPhone, Android ($0.99), www.soleilmobile.com
If you can’t afford to always buy organic, this app can help you determine which conventionally grown foods (like apples and bell peppers) have the highest pesticide levels and which are comparatively safe. This makes it easier for you to prioritize your food dollars while still avoiding the most problematic food products.
- Includes a database of common produce in addition to meats, dairy products, grains and seafood.
- Lists each item with a “skip it” or “buy it” designation along with a brief explanation of the recommendation logic.
- Offers tips on how to shop organic, as well as a glossary of common label terms.
Pros: The information is presented in a simple, no-nonsense way, which makes Soleil Organics both a snap to use and ideal for busy trips to the grocery store.
Cons: There are gaps in the listings for certain types of produce, including okra and Swiss chard. The navigation buttons are also a bit too small.
WHOLE FOODS MARKET RECIPES
iPhone, Web (Free), www.wholefoodsmarket.com/iphone
The Whole Foods Market Recipes app makes it easy to plan nutritious dinners — and get out of the store quickly with the healthiest ingredients.
- Includes hundreds of healthy recipes sorted by course (appetizer, main, side dish, dessert, etc.) or searchable by keyword.
- Illustrates each recipe with pictures and icons to designate gluten-free, high-fiber or vegetarian dishes.
- Offers nutrition facts for each recipe, including calories, fat, fiber and sodium.
- Allows you to email recipes or add all the ingredients to the in-app shopping list.
Pros: The scrollable recipes turn up a huge selection of great meal ideas. We also like the “on hand” tab, where you can find recipes based on the ingredients you already have in your refrigerator and pantry.
Cons: The shopping list isn’t consolidated, so if two recipes call for olive oil, you’ll see it twice on your list.
More to Try:
The Epicurious Recipes iPhone and Android app contains more than 30,000 recipes from popular food magazines like Bon Appétit and the recently departed Gourmet (now being reinvented as an app of its own). If you have an Android or BlackBerry phone, check out the SparkRecipes app. It includes thousands of user-submitted healthy recipes.
Life Balance and Quality of Life
iPhone ($0.99), www.signalpatterns.com
Focusing on the positive is one of the fastest ways to increase your happiness quotient. The Live Happy app, designed by Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, author of The How of Happiness (Penguin, 2007), is designed to help you do just that.
- Guides you through a daily program designed to boost feelings of happiness and satisfaction: focusing on joyful events, for instance, or adding positive pictures to a “savoring album,” among other strategies.
- Integrates with Twitter and Facebook so you can share the benefits of positive thinking with friends.
- Includes quizzes you can take to evaluate your mood or help you set life goals.
Pros: We like the Twitter and Facebook integration, and the app did remind us to focus on the positive and make happiness a priority.
Cons: The timeline, which lists baby steps toward your goals, can look cluttered if you have a lot of tasks.
iPhone, Android ($1.99), BlackBerry ($2.99), www.tmsoft.com
The soothing, repetitive sounds in the White Noise app can help you relax and fall asleep at night. We also like the app for generally blocking out distractions in noisy environments.
- Contains 40 ambient noises like heavy rain, chimes and ocean waves.
- Allows you to adjust the balance and pitch of each sound to your preference.
- Includes a timer for bedtime and an alarm so you don’t drift off to dreamland for too long.
- Saves your favorite sounds for easy access later.
Pros: White Noise has the best sound quality of the ambient-noise apps we tested. The timer and alarm features are very convenient; we like to set the timer for 10 minutes in the middle of the day to tame stress and tension.
Cons: Doesn’t offer a key feature that some white-noise apps do — letting you mix different sounds together for a custom blend.
iPhone ($0.99), www.lexwarelabs.com
If you’re one of the six in 10 Americans who struggle with sleep issues, the Sleep Cycle alarm clock can help you learn more about your sleep patterns. If you place your phone next to you on the bed, this app will track your body’s activity levels during the night, giving you a morning snapshot of how well or how fitfully you slept.
- Uses your iPhone’s accelerometer to track your movements during sleep. Includes a sleep graph that illustrates how often you wake during the night.
- Totals how much actual sleep you get nightly.
- Wakes you in your “lightest sleep phase” within a 30-minute window before your alarm time to help you avoid grogginess.
Pros: While we didn’t feel more rested than usual when the alarm went off, the sleep graph was pretty interesting. Who knew we woke up so much? This data could help you minimize sleep interruptions and, ultimately, sleep better. If you discover a chronic sleep problem, seeking help from a sleep therapist could help you resolve all kinds of nagging health issues.
Cons: The app is only good at tracking sleep problems that result in physical movement (not, for example, disrupted brain waves). It doesn’t work well on Tempur-Pedic mattresses, and you’ll need to keep your phone charged during the night so your battery doesn’t run down. For occasional use only: Because of concerns with potential EMF radiation, regularly sleeping next to a cell phone is not advised.
iPhone, Web (Free), www.goodguide.com/about/mobile
We all want to make buying choices that are consistent with our values, but it takes some digging to determine which companies — and products — share our priorities. GoodGuide rates more than 65,000 products based on health, environmental and social factors, helping you choose products you can feel good about while supporting companies that do the right thing.
- Includes ratings for thousands of items, including packaged foods, household cleaners, beauty products and more.
- Allows you to scan the barcode on 50,000 products with the iPhone’s camera to view the ratings and a brief explanation.
- Lets you create personalized lists of products to buy, as well as lists of products you want to avoid or buy less frequently.
Pros: The scanner recognized most barcodes we tested. Occasionally, we came across an item not in the database (you can submit suggestions for items not included).
Cons: We’d like to see more background information to know exactly why a certain product or company earns a low score.
More to Try:
The Ambiance white-noise app lets you combine sounds to create customized mixes, and it’s available for iPhone, BlackBerry and Android phones. Vision Board Deluxe is a virtual vision-board app that helps you define and document your big-picture priorities. We’re also big fans of the excellent interface on Momento, a popular journal app for the iPhone.
Tanya Menoni is a Wichita Falls, Texas–based freelance writer.