This week we’ll focus on technology to help us measure, track, and regulate our weight.

Last week we discussed how to use exercise tracking apps and heart rate monitors to make exercise more accurate for calorie counting. This week we will look at the two more key technologies that provide a more accurate picture of our weight and fat mass, and how to better regulate our weight changes by automatically adjusting our calorie target.

Scales and Wearable Activity Trackers

Earlier in this series I talked about how important it was to have an accurate scale to keep track of weight progress. Once I noticed our regular bathroom scale was giving me incorrect readings, I started searching for something to replace it.

I settled on the Withings Smart Body Analyzer, which is not an average bathroom scale. Aside from being extremely aesthetically well designed, it measures weight, fat mass, and resting heart rate (through your feet!); as well as the room’s temperature and CO2 level. If height is entered the scale will automatically calculate and track Body Mass Index (BMI). It is Wi-Fi capable, so it will automatically send all of these readings to an online (and secure) Withings account.

Withings also has an online and mobile app, Health Mate, which tracks all of these bits of information or allows you to enter them manually. The mobile app even uses the phone’s camera and flash as an optical heart rate monitor for taking spot readings, on the fly.

The online and mobile apps display instantaneously updated graphs to help guide you towards a particular weight. It will also take workout readings from Nike+ and RunKeeper and send weight data to the MyFitnessPal app.

Withings have some accompanying devices that also integrate into Health Mate app, including their Smart Blood Pressure Monitor. The Smart Blood Pressure Monitor is an electronic blood pressure cuff that works with the phone. Once activated, a compressor increases the air pressure in the cuff and uses an integrated air pressure and pulse strength monitor to determine systolic and diastolic blood pressure. There are pros and cons for the average person to have one of these – perhaps something for a later discussion.

Withings also developed an advanced activity tracker, Pulse O2. The Pulse O2 is wrist-wearable or may be clipped to a pocket. It uses an accelerometer (like the one in a phone) to count steps, but it also measures elevation, distance, and estimates calorie burn, in addition to measuring spot heart rate and blood oxygen levels. Like other trackers it also has a sleep tracking mechanism that measures periods of restless sleep. Withings also has a more stylish model, the Activité, which is the first step-counting wearable to actually look like a Swiss-styled watch.

Fitbit also has a scale, Aria, which is similar to the Smart Body Analyzer. However, they are probably more famous for having a whole variety of activity trackers to suit anyone’s needs. I received a Flex model as a Christmas gift from my daughter a little over a year ago and have used it daily ever since. The Flex is also wrist-wearable, and does the basic things like step counting and sleep monitoring, and quite frankly that’s all I really need.

Fitbit recently came out with some new models: Charge, Charge HR, and Surge, which also measure elevation, continuous heart rate. The Surge additionally has some phone interoperable features to display caller ID, text notifications, perform GPS tracking, and music control on your wrist (for about £67 ($100) less than an Apple Watch Sport).

It can be said that 2015 will be the year that health applications and wearables came into the mainstream. Apple recently entered the market with their Apple Watch, which just adds to the models provided by Withings, Fitbit, Microsoft Band, Garmin vívo series, Jawbone UP, Nike+ Fuelband, and all the rest.

Apple has also taken another step in iOS 8 with the inclusion of HealthKit, standard on all iPhones. It is an attempt to become a central, integrated clearinghouse for fitness, nutrition, sleep, and like information. It’s a nice idea if only all of the apps integrated properly with it. At the moment it is very hit or miss on the apps that actually work properly with it – sometimes infuriatingly so.

I’ve been experimenting with Health App, but quite frankly, RunKeeper has been doing a fine enough job. Despite all of the pretty graphics, Health App just adds one more thing to the equation to make everything more complicated, in my opinion.

Final Adjustments

Everything on these step-counting devices is nice to have, but basic step counting is the most important feature to me. It quantifies the meaning of daily activity. For example, using the terms in MyFitnessPal, ‘sedentary’ is essentially between 1000-2000 steps a day, ‘lightly active’ is essentially 2000-4000 steps, and so on.

Whereas the MyFitnessPal app uses only one setting for average, everyday activity, a device such as the Fitbit Flex can seamlessly refine that on a daily basis. By doing so, it can automatically make educated adjustments to the calorie budget, allowing you to seamlessly stablise towards a target weight.

MyFitnessPal added such a feature to its application. It looks at the Flex data over the course of the day to adjust exercise calories up or down according to the amount of activity performed. Having only activated this feature a year ago, my weight has since stabilised to within a quarter-stone (~4 pounds) without having to make any adjustments on my own.

Bringing it All Together

Today’s technology is the great enabler for all of this, much of which has only been available for the past 4 or 5 years. The concept that began as just a mobile cell phone with SMS texting functions is now vastly more capable – even over the past year.

The addition of GPS, Bluetooth, and 4G mobile Internet protocols give it another dimension, allowing it to interface with a host of other devices. This makes it more of a hand-held personal computer than a simple communication device.

But with none of those enabling technologies, none of the capabilities that I’ve described for the past three weeks would be possible. There would be no portable apps where you could look up the calories for a specific food, let a lone use a bar code reader. There would be no exercise apps that would track your path, reading wireless heart rate monitors to report the calories burned. There certainly wouldn’t be step-counting devices that monitor your activity over the course of a day.

So with the amount of people that have mobile smart phones and the tools available, it boggles the mind as to why there still so many people that are still not exercising.

Food for thought.

Last Week: Technology to Help Track Exercises.

Next Week: Five ways to get back to running.

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