How to keep fit with your iOS device

5th Jan 2013 | 12:00

How to keep fit with your iOS device

Healthy, happy and fit with your iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad

Usually, when you come across a feature in a magazine about getting fit and healthy, there's a bullying, hectoring undertone. Get up off your backside, seems to be the underlying message, and do some bloody exercise.

Well, you won't hear that here. It's no business of ours how much exercise you take, how few calories you consume every day, or how otherwise healthy you are. Our job is to tell you how your iPhone, iPod touch or iPad can help you get the most out of your life, and that's just what we're going to do here, specifically looking at how your device can help keep you fit and healthy - and hopefully happier as a result.

Another thing we're not going to do is prescribe what apps, kit and techniques you should use; only you - in consultation with your doctor, if needs be - can know exactly what mix of these is right for you.

Our task here is to present you with all the options, and let you make your mind up about which things will work for you. So unlike those other magazines that tell you to get up off the sofa, we're going to tell you to sit down on the sofa and enjoy reading the rest of this feature.

Once you get to the end, you'll see that your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch can help you make health and well-being changes for the better both in big, traditional, sweaty ways, but also in subtle, entirely pleasant ways that shift your behaviour just enough to effect some big-scale changes without having to get totally exhausted or deny yourself a good, balanced diet.

This isn't some pie-in-the-sky promise that you can sit around eating, well, pies, all day and that you'll be fine if you just install a couple of apps on your iPhone; rather, we'll talk about how using your iOS device cleverly can gently coax you into making good choices, everything from deciding to take the stairs rather than the lift, to conventional exercise, and dozens of points in between.

There are lots of reasons that your iPhone, iPod touch or iPad is the perfect companion in helping you get or stay fit and healthy. One of the simplest and yet most important is that, especially in the case of the iPhone and iPod touch, most of us always have ours with us.

If you're doing the thing of counting calories or watching your cholesterol, for example, your results are going to be more accurate and more complete if you can just pull out your device when you have lunch and quickly tap in a few figures directly rather than waiting until you get back to your PC or noting things in a physical diary.

The social, connected nature of these devices is also a boon. Getting encouragement from friends, whether that's them explicitly egging you on or, as with the Nike FuelBand system, seeing how they're doing compared to you and being spurred on through friendly competition, can have a subtle but hugely motivating effect on you.

And, of course, having the always-on internet in your pocket when you have an iPhone or iPad with cellular access can be invaluable when you want, say, to look up the GI value of something you're thinking about eating.

The Wi-Fi or cellular access to the internet isn't the only connectivity an iOS device has, mind you; accessories can connect to the headphone port, can use Bluetooth and, ever since iPhone OS 3 in 2009, can plug into the dock connector that's on the devices' bottom edge. This last point is especially exciting, as it means companies can make terrific medical and well-being add-ons such as glucose monitors for people who have diabetes.

iOS devices are stuffed with all sorts of sensors too. Some of them are used in ways you'd expect; the GPS chip in all iPhones but the original model is great for mapping your runs - indeed, the RunKeeper app can map your run live so that friends and family can watch your route as you run it.

Some of the sensors are used in innovative ways; apps such as CrunchFu can count how many sit-ups you do if you hold an iPhone on your chest under your crossed arms, just by using the accelerometer.

And that particular sensor is so sensitive that it can even detect your heart rate in apps such as Cardiograph. And sometimes, developers use sensors in ways we bet Apple never imagined.

Instant Heart Rate, for example, can read your heart rate when you press your finger against the camera on the back of your iPhone 4/4S - the flash lights up and shines through your skin, and the camera picks up the change in the light levels as your heart pumps!

Using your iPhone itself, with all its built-in sensors and connectivity, or augmenting it with accessories that you plug in or connect wirelessly, is usually a more cost-effective strategy than buying a drawerful of stand-alone gadgets that only do one thing. It's not just to do with the cost of buying these widgets; it's how good the experience is once you start using them compared to how it could be on iOS.

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Sure, you could buy a cheap pedometer with a basic numeric LCD, but while that would tell you how many steps you've taken today, say, if you were to use a Fitbit Ultra instead, your iPhone would display the results on rich, full-colour graphs, be able to store weeks, months or even years of data that its powerful processor can manipulate and present in different ways - to help you spot trends, set goals and more.

It's easy to forget the benefits of having everything linked together, with your iOS device as the nexus; Medisana's range of health-focused accessories for iOS - for measuring blood sugar, blood pressure, weight and more - all use the same app, so if you choose, you can have all your data in one place. This makes it easy to spot trends, or share results with your doctor who could then see correlation between things that might have been tricky to identify otherwise.

Your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch itself, then, can be an useful bit of hardware at the centre of a terrific ecosystem of accessories, apps and services, but it's not just this that makes it an invaluable companion when you're trying to achieve or maintain a healthy, active lifestyle.

There's a subtle but effective and affecting psychological benefit as well; the mere act of writing things down can make a big difference. Partly, this is because you can actually keep track of changes and trends in, say, your weight rather than relying on your trousers feeling tight or loose. We're often surprised to find that the raw data we note down is at odds with what we presumed was happening, both in a positive and negative way at times, a testament to the fact that our minds are a mess of preconceptions and downright lies about ourselves.

Partly, too, it helps because you can see, live, how close you are to the goals you've set, and we've been amazed at the difference this makes to us in the months we've been using this kind of kit.

With the Nike FuelBand, for example, you can, at the press of a button, get a little row of LEDs that show you how close to your activity goal you are, and it's fascinating to note how this can help us make different choices.

Thinking about getting the bus home? Ah, but that will probably mean you won't hit your goal for the day - and though that doesn't really mean anything, it really can influence your behaviour.

It's the same idea with the Fitbit Ultra; it can also tell you how many floors you climb, and your willpower when deciding whether to take the lift or the stairs can get a welcome boost when the angel sitting on one of your shoulders reminds you that you're a bit behind today and should really make the extra little bit of effort.

This all isn't just anecdotal, either. Academic studies have shown the positive effect of simply recording progress; one 1986 study even showed that the results of students with disabilities improved even more greatly when graphed compared to when simply recorded, and that's another place where your iOS device can be a huge help.

Sports specifics

Nike FuelBand

First, let's talk about accessories, and specifically those that can help track how active you are every day.

Our favourite is the Nike FuelBand. It's the most expensive, but gets our vote both because it's the most useful and informative device on its own, and also because, when you connect it live to your iOS device over Bluetooth (another tick!), you get rich, informative graphs and achievements.

What's more, the Facebook integration acts as a great incentive to walking or running more; when you can see that your friends' scores are higher than yours, a small (and slightly unpleasant, if we're honest) voice in your head will get you off the sofa, just for your own pride! The FuelBand is, though, expensive at £129, and there are other options that are almost as good.

We like the Fitbit Ultra, a little thing you clip to your waistband that measures how many steps you take and how many floors you climb. Like the FuelBand, it also estimates how many calories you've burned, though in both cases we're sceptical about how accurate this extrapolated figure can really be.

Unfortunately it doesn't link to your iOS device directly - you have to sync it via a PC or Mac - but the iPhone app is good, and will also track other metrics such as how much water you drink. It will also track your sleep patterns, unlike the FuelBand, and, especially if you pay for the premium online service, will give you personalised guidance on realistic goals and interpreting your results.

Zeo sleep monitor

Even better at giving you advice with a detailed, personalised report is another device that can help track your sleep, the Lark. We tested this alongside the Zeo, and though the data from the Zeo is more accurate - it measures electrical activity in the brain rather than merely movement data in a device strapped to your wrist as with the Lark - the fact that it's relatively bulky and straps to your forehead means that it really gets in the way when you're trying to sleep.

Sure, you could 'fool' the Lark by lying perfectly still while remaining wide awake, but you'd only be fooling yourself. The information, trends and, ultimately, advice the Lark gives you really is useful and written in a very human way, and we think it can really make a big difference to those people struggling with light insomnia.

There's one last activity tracking gadget we'd like to mention here, but with a big caveat. The Jawbone UP, like the Nike FuelBand, is a bracelet-like thing you wear on your wrist. It lacks the FuelBand's display and Bluetooth connection, and the app isn't as rich, but it's less bulky, and cleverly connects to your device by plugging into its headphone port.

The caveat, though, is that there were problems with the early models, and while the company acted quickly and did everything right in keeping customers happy, as we write it still hasn't gone back on sale. It's likely to soon, though.

Step it up

Fitbit

While all of these are great ways of passively tracking how much you move around every day, they will, of course, also do a great job of recording your effort if you do decide to step it up and actually go for a run. But there are other options that are specifically designed to be used for running.

There is, of course, the Nike ecosystem, which we'll talk about in its own section later on, and it's worth noting that, though it's much less well known and doesn't have the same heritage as Nike, Adidas also has a similar range of sensors and apps that are worth considering.

You don't have to go for a lock-in with one of the big sportswear companies, though; Scosche, for example, makes the myTREK, a sensor you strap to your wrist that communicates your heart rate to your device over Bluetooth. This information can help ensure you exercise well - not pushing yourself too hard, but not doing so little as to be ineffectual. You can get audio prompts too as you run.

Your iPad, of course, isn't exactly ideal to carry with you on a run, but if you have an iPhone or iPod touch, you can easily strap it to your upper arm with an armband from companies such as Belkin, Griffin and Incase. You can still use the device through the clear plastic covering, but it's protected and securely fastened so that you can just concentrate on running.

The headphones that come in the box with an iPhone or iPod not only don't sound great, but for most of us they fall out of our ears far too easily. Happily, there are plenty of other options. Earphones such as the Iqua Ear-go actually clip on to your earlobes, but we'd prefer something wireless so we can swing our arms freely when running without fear of tangling in a cable and yanking the earphones out.

Jabra Sport

If you like in-ear headphones, we recommend the Jabra SPORT. They're comfortable, connect over Bluetooth and are rainproof to boot. For over-ears, we still, years on, like the Bluetooth-toting JayBird Sportsband. They fit snugly, and though we get a bit squeamish just writing the words, we appreciate their lifetime warranty against sweat.

Your iPhone can help you with more than just running, mind you. The Wahoo Blue SC Speed and Cadence Sensor for iPhone 4S attaches to a bike to track distance, so you can see how far you've ridden today, last week, ever and so on; the data is passed to your iPhone 4S or new iPad over Bluetooth 4.0 - which is why it won't work with older devices.

Remember: the mere act of recording this data can be a powerful motivator. If you need even more motivation and coaxing, though, you should look at the iBike system, specifically the POWERHOUSE model. That gives you a weather-proof and rugged case for your iPhone that you attach to your handlebars, plus a sensor to measure speed and cadence.

The reason we like this so much, though, is that the accompanying app will calibrate to your level of fitness, then, through a series of training programmes (two are included, with more available as In-App Purchases), it will gradually build you up even from a standing start.

If you've bought a bike with the best of intentions and yet never actually found yourself using the damn thing, the iBike POWERHOUSE is a good way to get yourself using it to improve your fitness levels, without it feeling like you're being punished by a sergeant at boot camp.

There's a whole slew of iOS accessories that can help track biometric data too. You might, for example, be advised to watch your blood pressure, and for many of us, getting a blood pressure test from a doctor is infrequent, inconvenient and stressful - which, ironically, pushes up your blood pressure.

Instead, a blood pressure cuff from Withings or Medisana lets you measure yours regularly, and in the comfort of your own home. The results are stored and plotted on a graph on the bright colour screen of your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch, so it's easy to see trends and problems, and consult with your doctor to interpret results and formulate strategies to improve your health.

Both companies make other medical hardware that connect to iOS devices too. Withings' original product was a set of Wi-Fi scales which not only measure your weight but also your lean and fat mass - and, as an encore, your Body Mass Index. Results are sent to the web, and can be viewed on your iOS device.

Medisana makes a similar set of scales. We found them a bit inconsistent when we tested them a few months ago, but Medisana was working on the problem. The Fitbit Aria scales are at least more consistent.

Brand loyalty

exercise accessories

When picking one of these sets of scales, allow yourself to be influenced by whether you own something else from the same company. If you already have the Medisana blood sugar monitor to help control diabetes, for example, and want to buy a set of scales that will send its measurements to your device, you should consider the VitaDock TargetScale from the same company.

We say this because having all your biometric data feeding into one app or one platform makes it easier to spot trends and correlate events; you can see, for example, what effect weight loss over a period of time has on the frequency and dose of insulin injections. Medisana even makes an infrared thermometer that plugs into your device's dock connector, and while infrared thermometers can only measure surface rather than core body temperature, something like this would still be a great way of tracking, say, a fever.

There is, then, a huge ecosystem of kit that you can add to your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch in the quest to improve your general well-being, but you don't even need to spend lots of money on hardware. There are, of course, many dozens of great apps that are ready to gently guide or challenge you, and some of them don't cost a penny.

Apple has created a great list of these apps on the App Store, which you can browse through here - tap on that link to be taken straight to the list on the App Store.

Let's talk about a few of the apps that Apple has highlighted, ones that we think are particularly worthy of your attention, as well as a few other ideas. Which apps you get will depend on what kind of exercise you want to do - and if you don't want to do exercise, at least just yet, you'll have to skip a few paragraphs to get to the apps that aren't about exercise!

If running's your thing, you can choose between the stalwart RunKeeper or the Nike Plus Running app (discussed in the section on Nike) when you want to track and map your runs. Nike's app is a little prettier to our eyes, and hooks into the wider Nike ecosystem, but serious runners tend to prefer RunKeeper.

As we've mentioned, one of RunKeeper's really cool features is the ability to broadcast your run live on a map great for letting friends, family and fans see how you're doing on a half marathon, for example.

If you'd like to get running but aren't sure how to start, apps such as Couch-to-5K and Get Running (Couch to 5K) can get you moving gently, and if you're an experienced runner, Ultimate Running Races will help you find challenging courses all over the world. And if, ultimately, you need novelty to get you interested, try Zombies, Run - a weird mix of app to get you running (you can hear the zombies getting closer in your headphones) and game that uses supplies you collect while running to build up your base.

There are lots of apps for cyclists too, whether you want to simply use the iPhone's on-board sensors to map your ride and give you live data about your distance, speed, pace and so on with an app such as Xtrail, administer first aid to your bike on the roadside with Bike Doctor 2, challenge your friends using Strava Cycling, or just find great bike-friendly routes with apps such as London Bike Rides, CycleStreets and Ride the City. Remember to get a secure mount for your device, though.

Swimming's a bit trickier, not just because keeping your device dry is a challenge in itself, but also because it's less easy to track distances automatically. Nevertheless, there are a slew of apps that can help. Swimming Log PRO and its ilk are there so you can record and track your progress, there are apps such as Stroke Builder and Swim Coach Plus to coach you in swimming, and Splashpath can show you where your local pools are and when you can go.

And if churning up and down lanes doesn't sound like your idea of a good time, BeachWeather lets you track conditions at your favourite beaches.

If you prefer the gym, or are forced into one by a lack of local amenities, your iPhone can be a great buddy. Competing with friends and even strangers all over the world can be a great motivator, in apps such as Push-Up Wars and Fitocracy.

The great thing, though, is that you don't need to pay for a gym membership to get started. The App Store is stuffed with apps that will train you. Now, we're not saying that you can't get better and more personalised advice at a gym from a qualified instructor, but if you're worried about making that sort of financial commitment, an app such as Nike mTraining club or DailyBurn (both of which are free) can start you off in your living room, and are a good way to test your resolve.

Again, though, don't just think about exercise in the traditional sense. There are apps for yoga, apps for jiujitsu, capoeira and much more.

Besides, your iPhone can help look after you in more ways than just promoting exercise. If you need a little encouragement to eat more healthily, a recipe app such as Good Food Healthy Recipes can be invaluable, or you can 'gamify' healthy eating with an app such as Munch 5-A Day, which spurs you on to eat plenty of fruit and veg. Of course, long-established weight-loss companies such as WeightWatchers also have apps to complement their services.

If you have a medical condition, search the App Store; there's almost certainly something there that can assist in managing it. And if you're thinking of starting a family, apps such as Period Diary can lend a helping hand.

All of this comes down to the fact that your iOS device can really help with whatever aspect of your personal health and well-being you want to work on. We reckon that the best bit is that you can start gentle - even, in the case of activity trackers such as the Nike FuelBand and Fitbit Ultra, by not changing your lifestyle at all, at least initially - and then, if you think you need to, gently cranking up the intensity.

With the right apps, kit and attitude, your iPhone, iPad and iPod touch can make you healthy, happy and fit. Go for it!

The Nike ecosystem

Nike

In May 2006, the Nike+ iPod system was revealed, and it was quite a big deal. It was one of the highest-profile partnerships Apple had or has ever made, and Apple is a company famous for doing its own thing; other companies, the impression given seems to be, aren't up to Apple's standards.

Originally, you put a sensor into one of a very small number of Nike trainers, and plugged a receiving dongle into an iPod, all in aid of tracking your runs, and playing motivating playlists while you jogged. These days - ever since the second-generation iPod touch, in fact - iPhones and iPod touches have the receiver built in, and all you have to do is enable the built-in app by going to Settings and flicking the switch to On in the Nike+ iPod section.

What's more, there's a huge range of Nike trainers now that can accept the sensor, or - though Nike doesn't recommend it - you can attach it to non-Nike shoes with an adapter such as the LaceLid. We mention this not only because the Nike+ iPod system remains a great way to track your runs today, but also to demonstrate the company's legacy here.

Its range of accessories and apps - mostly linking live to iOS devices - has greatly broadened, especially in the last year or so, but it's the company that first saw and realised the potential for augmenting a device you carried with you everywhere with a few extra sensors to make every workout - or even just a walk to the shops for a pint of milk - count.

Fuel's gold

And although Nike's gadgets and services don't quite yet all hook up to a common platform, things are moving in that direction. It has introduced the concept of NikeFuel, a synthetic measure of activity and energy expended, and new accessories will be able to record using this, making it easy to increase your NikeFuel count no matter what you're doing.

Though we still like the venerable Nike+ iPod system, there are newer technologies out there to give you even more detail and even more training support. The Nike+ Training shoes have more built-in sensors that provide much more granular data, transmitting it live to your iPhone over Bluetooth not only so you can track and monitor your activity, but also to hook into daily training sessions from pros.

The Nike Hyperdunk+ trainers for basketball are even more, um, redunkulous. A system of sensors embedded in their soles will transmit your performance back to your iPhone or iPod touch, and can tell you an amazing amount about how you're doing - including how high you jump and your hangtime. All this is converted to NikeFuel, and you can share your results with your friends.

Free running

You don't need to buy expensive trainers, though, especially if you just want to have a go and see if it's for you. The free Nike+ Running app uses your iPhone's GPS and/or accelerometer to record your progress. You can easily display GPS-tracked runs on maps, share them on the web and more - even having your friends on Facebook and Path cheer you on.

It's rich, accurate and free; the only bad thing is that you have to use either this or the Nike+ iPod sensor; you can't really use both at once.

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