Ask the Doctors - Can an exercise app help me get more exercise?


Dear Doctors: I’m having trouble keeping my resolution to get more exercise, and one of my co-workers swears that an activity tracker or an exercise app will help me stay focused. What are they, exactly, and why would they work?

First, let us reassure you that you’re not alone. By deciding to exercise more, you’ve committed to creating a new habit, and that’s always a challenge. There’s the honeymoon phase, when you’re buoyed by elation and optimism, and when getting out every day for a walk or a run or a trip to the gym is a snap.

However this is often followed by a period of struggle as reality sets in. No matter the scope of the goal, you’ve committed to a process that moves gradually, in increments, and requires consistent will power. Suddenly, finding an excuse to skip that yoga class is all too easy.

But take heart. For those who don’t give up, who power through the disruption and uncertainty that a new activity can bring, there comes a magic moment. Suddenly, the new behavior has become second nature. It’s a habit, a part of your life.

For those who decide to make exercise a new habit, an activity tracker or an exercise app can make that difficult middle phase bearable. They help you set a goal, track your progress, and keep a diary of your effort. A recent study found that 75 percent of the participants who used an exercise app said they were more active. They also reported a drop in their BMI, or body mass index.

Depending on the product, you can track your heart rate, calories burned, distance you have run, and the number of steps taken in a day. Some apps and devices help you with food choices, and let you log your food intake. Dive deep into the technology, and you’ll find devices that can offer feedback on the duration and quality of your sleep.

As to specifics, a fitness app is simply a program that you download onto your smartphone. You can use it to log information about your workouts and, depending on the app, receive data that tells you how well you’re doing in achieving your goals. Some popular apps, such as MyFitnessPal, are free.

Fitness apps are highly personal. They help you stay aware of what you’re eating, how much you’re moving, and whether you’re improving. Your long-term goal is to exercise more. What an app can do is provide enough detail to set daily goals. It can make incremental progress, which is both the heart and challenge of creating a new habit, interesting and even fun.

An activity tracker, like the popular Fitbit, is basically an exercise app that you wear. It uses sensors to detect your movement and, with an algorithm, translates the raw data into statistics about your progress. You then download the data onto your computer to use as you wish.

Whichever you choose, an app for your smartphone or the wearable tech of a fitness tracker, what you’re getting is a helpful blend of coach, trainer, and cheerleader.

Eve Glazier, MD., MBA, and Elizabeth Ko, MD., are internists at UCLA Health. Dr. Glazier is an associate professor of medicine; Dr. Ko is an assistant professor of medicine.

Ask the Doctors is a syndicated column first published by UExpress syndicate.