The iPhone Diet? Digital Health Finds Its Legs With Mobile Platforms

Want to dial up a weight loss plan?

Consult your physician. Then, once you get the green light, pull out your Apple iPhone, download a new breed of digital health apps, and start slimming down with the iPhone diet.

Weight loss, physical fitness, blood pressure monitoring and even sleep management are now an increasingly embraced part of the Apple iPhone ecosystem -- with new products over the past several months gaining significant acceptance.

Leading IT companies such as Intel began launching major digital health initiatives a decade ago, outlining the advances for both health-care consumers and providers in deploying PC-based solutions for medical intervention and wellness. But it wasn’t until the past 18 months that digital health solutions began showing momentum, spurred by ’apps’ that fit in with new platforms like iPhone, iPad and Android.

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In research published by consulting firm Parks Associates, data shows some attention-getting numbers:

• Almost 20 percent of consumers have begun to use the Web to track the progress of their health, and as many as 7 percent have used the Web to communicate with their physicians;

• As of last December, there were more than 8,600 mobile apps for medical use or health and fitness just through Apple’s iTunes App Store alone;

• More than 9 out of 10 households in the U.S. have a mobile phone and one out of three in ’broadband’ households own a smartphone;

• Almost 80 percent of 200,000 physician practices in the U.S. have three or fewer doctors – exactly the type of practice that may benefit greatly from prescribing digital health solutions for patients.

Overall, according to Parks, the entire U.S. digital health-care industry will grow to more than $5.7 billion by 2015, with consumers of digital health solutions jumping from 3.8 million last year to 26 million over five years.

For anyone who has used digital health apps and found how easy and effective they can be, that number seems quite conservative. They work, they are flexible and -- because they fit in with mobile devices -- are at your side on just about a 24-7 basis.

We’ve examined a number of them, and found the best way to test several was simply to use them. Dieting and exercise aren’t fun, but the best-in-breed iPhone apps for weight-loss tasks are effective and can have impact. Here’s what we experienced:

NEXT: Nike + iPod

Using an iPhone 4.0, several apps and connected gadgets made the most sense to download and use:

Nike + iPod
This app wasn’t even downloaded -- it was preloaded onto the iPhone and just needed to be activated. Nike, the sporting goods manufacturer, released this in 2008 for iPods and has ported it to iPhones. To get it to work, you need a running shoe and a motion sensor that fits inside the shoe. The sensor talks to the Nike + iPod app and tells it how fast you’re running or walking, for how long, and how many calories are burned.

This app also syncs to the iPod playlist on the iPhone, and allows for selection of a ’Power Song’ that can be played with the touch of a button for additional inspiration to take a workout up a notch.

Among the best features are pre-set ’coaching voices’ that tell you how close you are to a goal for running a particular distance, length of time or number of calories burned during a workout. Celebrity athletes like Lance Armstrong will congratulae you through pre-recorded messages after your workout if you’ve run -- for example -- your fastest time in the mile.

The app will collect your workout data and then sync to your account on the Nike Running Web site where you can track your workout history and goals in greater detail. In trying to lose weight, tracking calories burned can be a tremendous aid. (Nike also provides a social networking element to its running Web site where you can share your Nike + iPod data with friends or others if you want.)

WiThings Scale
WiThings is a startup that has received funding and support from, among others, Polaris Ventures. Its WiThings scale -- on the market for about two years -- is truly innovative. Not only is it a highly accurate digital scale that will measure your pounds, it also measures your Body Mass Index (BMI). It’s also Wi-Fi-enabled.

Once you receive the scale, you download the related app from the iTunes App Store onto an iPhone and also sign up for a free account on the WiThings Web site. Through the app or Web site, you provide information like height in addition to weight, so the service and scale can calculate your Body Mass Index (BMI).

Each morning, when you step on the scale, the WiThings scale transmits the weight an BMI information through a WiFi antenna to your WiThings Internet account, which then sends it to your iPhone. If you choose, WiThings will also allow you to sync your weight and BMI data with Google Health -- Google’s online depository where individuals can store health records and also share data with their physician.

WiThings will track your weight to a tenth of a pound, and provide you via iPhone and Web with a neat little graphic showing you how much weight you’re losing over time.

NEXT: Livestrong Calorie Tracker

The ability to track weight data and share it effortlessly via Google Health with care providers, if the case calls for it, could help not just cut down on the pounds but also on trips to the doctor for those whose weight is being tracked by a physician.

Livestrong Calorie Tracker
Developed by world champion cyclist Lance Armstrong and Demand Media, has been designed as a ’daily health, fitness and lifestyle destination.’ Livestrong also provides a number of different health and fitness apps, and we checked out the Livestrong calorie tracker. [There are a number of calorie trackers available in the iTunes App Store, and most seem to be very good.]

The Livestrong Calorie Tracker and sync very well. Through the Web site, we were able to set up a weight loss goal -- which Livestrong then translated into a daily calorie count that would get the job done and synchronized to the iPhone app.

Unlike other app-based calorie trackers, this one lets you track both calories burned and calories consumed during a given day -- as well as informing you of how many calories left you can eat and still stick to your weekly weight loss goal. This app’s calorie tracker has a library of calorie and nutritional information for most foods, and also lets you add your own if you choose.

After weighing in on the WiThings scale every morning, and exercising with Nike + iPod, we simply combined that into the Livestrong app.

Keeping an accurate calorie count each day can be a big deal in weight management. These three apps -- and related gadgetry -- let you keep accurate data in real time, and keep it with you all day long.

These three apps -- Nike + iPod, WiThings and Livestrong Calorie Counter -- worked great, never crashed and were literally always in hand. They worked great in tandem and, individually, synchronized flawlessly with their Web services. And, because they were on an iPhone that was always nearby, they were always handy. Together, you can consider them part of the ’iPhone Diet’ -- a health, fitness and weight command center that does a great job of adapting to an individual’s lifestyle to make weight loss successful.

A couple of caveats: this reviewer did sit down with a physician and nutritionist to discuss fitness and dieting before getting started here. The iPhone apps and related gadgets gave all of us tools to meet goals. Hopefully, care providers will begin to leverage this technology in greater numbers. Smart phones are designed from the start to adapt to individual lifestyles, and so are a surprising number of digital health applications.

Oh, the result on this end: a loss of 30 pounds in six months.