Many of us know firsthand that losing weight and staying fit can be tough. For me, I started a journey a little over a year ago to get in better shape before my 30th birthday. While diet and exercise were the ultimate keys to my success, technology played an important role in keeping me accountable, tracking my progress and making my workouts more effective. Now that I've reached some of my fitness goals, I'd like to share the tools I used. These will be more important to me than ever as I try to maintain my weight loss and improve my strength and endurance.
Technology helped me keep tabs on what I was eating and how many calories I was burning. I used MyFitnessPal, a free service that lets you maintain a digital diary of your food choices, cardio work and strength training.
You can update entries using a phone app or a website, you have almost no excuse not to enter the information no matter where you are. Apps are available for the iPhone, the iPad and Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone devices.
When first using the program, you're prompted for such information as weight, height, age and activity level. That's used to create a plan for how many calories you should eat and what percentage should come from protein, fat or carbohydrates. You can also set your own parameters.
You then enter what you're eating (and drinking) throughout the day, and the app records the calories, fat, protein, carbs and vitamins. MyFitnessPal has an extensive list of fresh and packaged foods to choose from. The database also includes popular recipes found in magazines, so you don't have to enter the ingredients individually.
You can copy an entire meal to another day if you're a creature of habit. Or use your phone's camera to scan a barcode and have the app look up the nutritional information.
But food is half the battle. MyFitnessPal also lets you enter your workouts and strength training. You select the activity, such as cleaning, walking the dog, taking a spinning class or, for me, playing ice hockey. Based on your personal health information, the service calculates the number of calories burned. While the numbers are only estimates, they provide a pretty solid guideline.
Once you're done entering your information, you can look at charts, graphs and lists of your diet and exercise to get a better view of your day or week.
Monitoring my progress helped motivate me to stay on track to getting in better shape. For this, I enlisted the use of the Withings WiFi Body Scale ($159.99).
The scale not only measures your weight, body fat, lean muscle and Body Mass Index, but it also connects to the Internet so you can keep track of your measurements through its website or an iPhone app (iPad and Android versions are coming soon).
You can see how you compare to your personal goals and recommended health zones. You can have the scale automatically share your data with other online health coaching programs, or post results to a blog, Facebook or Twitter. There are no subscription fees.
After trying a few different wearable monitors, including the Nike+ FuelBand, I found the most helpful tool was a heart rate monitor.
Basic monitors in the $100 price range can encourage people to get active, while options costing more than $400 are available with accessories that can measure how far you're running or how fast you're cycling. I tested a Polar RCX5 ($349.95 for a basic set, with accessories for GPS and cycling available).
After entering my height, weight and age, I strapped on the elastic band around my chest and clipped in the heart rate monitor that transmits data wirelessly to a unit on my wrist.
After you choose a sport for that workout, such as running, cycling or swimming, the Polar times your workout and tracks your calories burned based on your heart rate. It also estimates what percentage of the burned calories came from fat.
When you're done with a workout, all of the exercise information you record can be transferred through your computer to Polar's personal training website, where it's analyzed and tracked.