Losing weight, the hi-tech way

If you want to get rid of that winter “spare tire,” there’s plenty of help out there, of course.

By DAVID SHAMAH
December 24, 2010 16:35
Fitbit

weight loss device. (photo credit: Courtesy)

There seems to be little separating the fat from the fit – just a letter. And they’re both vowels. If only the gap between the two in real life were as easy to bridge as it is in the alphabet. But, sadly, flipping that vowel takes a bit of work – work that many of us just aren’t up to. Especially now, during the winter, when our ancient hoarding tendencies come to the fore, and we eat more.

If you want to get rid of that winter “spare tire,” there’s plenty of help out there, of course, but most of those methods involve recording details, keeping a food diary – i.e., writing down the foods you eat, the portion size, the time, etc. Now, in the Internet age, these diaries have moved online, so “all” you have to do is click on the name of the food, type in how much of it you ate and let the site tell you how you’re doing.

Ditto for exercise diaries. You write or type in (like on a website) the exercises you do, the time you spend on them, etc., and interact with other like-minded people who, like you, are trying to lose weight on the website’s community.

Dedicated people will tell you that food and exercise diaries work if you’re really, really dedicated to keeping them properly. Of course they do, because you end up avoiding eating because you don’t have the time to spend on doing the diary. It’s like a builtin negative incentive to diet. But unfortunately, that kind of diet doesn’t work for most people, who just don’t have the time to futz around with websites.

But there is hope for the weight-challenged, who are also time-challenged, in the form of automated activity monitors, which automatically record your calorie expenditure – morning, noon and night – even when you sleep.

Despite the proliferation of fancy diets that go heavy on the protein and light on the carbs, and “magical” teas and the like that are supposed to help you lost weight, most sensible nutritionists will tell you that there is one basic secret to successful weight loss: Use up more calories than you take in. “Networked body monitors” like the Fitbit, Bodybugg and Philips Directlife fight half the battle for you, letting you know how many calories you’re burning.

Note that some of the devices also let you record your intake (that’s mostly a manual affair, though, like on the computer), but the idea is that if you’re following a diet where you know more or less how many calories you’re consuming, you can concentrate on the exercise and let the device do the calorie expenditure recording for you. This motivates you to work out harder and more often, as you see the calories hopefully piling out, instead of up. There’s much to be said about each device, but little space to do it. Here’s a little to whet your appetite.



• Fitbit: A bit like a portable Nintendo Wii, using the same motion sensor technology, the Fitbit (http://www.fitbit.com/) clips onto your clothes, clothespin style, and automatically records your activity. Based on how much it gets moved around during the day, and in what manner, the Fitbit records calorie usage at all times of day.

The device’s display shows you calories burned and number of steps taken (the goal for most healthy people being at least 10,000 a day). The fitter you are, the more petals in your device’s “flower,” which begins budding in the morning on its way to its full 12 petals – depending on how hard you work out. The information gets uploaded wirelessly to a computer where a base station is attached and sent to the Fitbit website, where you can crunch numbers in umpteen ways.

The Fitbit people are big believers in a good night’s sleep, and it can tell you all sorts of interesting things about your sleep habits – do you move around a lot, how many times you woke up, how long it took you to fall asleep, etc. On your computer, you can manually enter the food you eat, as well as the specific exercises you’ve engaged in that cover your calorie count (note that it doesn’t work in the water, so if you like to swim you need to manually enter your laps to get calorie credit for it). One criticism that many reviewers have of the Fitbit is that it doesn’t provide a context for the data it amasses – i.e., how you can use it to lose weight – but it’s by far the cheapest of the lot, selling for only $99.

• Philips Directlife: The Directlife (http://www.directlife.philips.com/) isn’t just a device – it’s a program with real live fitness coaches who will guide you on a 12-week program that is more or less adapted to your personal needs. The Directlife doesn’t have a clip, but it does have a lanyard, which you can wear around your neck, or you can just put it in your pocket. After a week’s assessment, your activity gets uploaded to the Directlife site, where it gets analyzed. The site then sends you suggestions about how to increase your calorie burning (a choice of exercises, etc.), and you can consult via e-mail with an actual trainer, who will give you tips on how to maximize your activity.

Instead of data readouts and a flower, the display of the Directlife contains a row of dots; the more active you are, the more dots light up. You sync the information via USB to your computer; it gets uploaded to the Directlife site, where you can evaluate your data in oh so many ways. You can also use the device while swimming, as it is waterproof.

Among the criticisms users have of the Directlife is that it is somewhat inaccurate on some activities and doesn’t record activities less than 10 minutes. But like we said, the Directlife is a program, and that program has lots of features to get you moving. The device, along with a one-year program, costs $149 – a pretty good price, considering that you get to work with a fitness coach, if only virtually.

While both these systems have their charm, they are not the only players in this field. Next time we’ll see some more products that promise to keep an eye on you 24/7 – until you turn into a real “loser.”

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