Using technology to improve your health

Several weeks ago, David Sparks over at MacSparky posted an article on how he’s using ioS apps to help him lose weight. As one whose physical fitness has left much to be desired over the last, well, couple of decades, I was interested in what David was doing.

Almost three years ago now, I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. In one sense, the diabetes data was “mild.” My blood sugar was not completely out of whack, I don’t need insulin, but it’s definitely a problem. I think the best description for my current condition is impaired fasting glucose, but I reject the notion that it is “pre-” diabetes in my case. At best, with diet and exercise I have been able to get my blood glucose back to a point where it could be considered pre-diabetes once upon a time. In my mind, however, I’ve crossed the line into full diabetes, and once that Rubicon is crossed, there’s no going back. My mission is to control my condition and keep it from getting worse and creating other problems down the line.

My physician was quite blunt about what I needed to do to combat the diabetes: eat less, eliminate sweets, lose weight, and exercise. As one who loves chocolate chip cookies, this was not a prescription I wanted to hear. But, over the last few years I’ve done okay in three out of those four areas. The exercise has been the tough one. I can tell myself that I need to exercise, but motivating myself to do it is quite a different thing. There’s an incredible amount of inertia that I had to overcome. This is where technology has made it easier for me.

In March, I somehow got it in my head that I should run a 5K race that takes place in South Bend each June: the Sunburst Races. I had previously seen a web site that promotes a “couch to 5K” program. (Yes, I thought for a second they named it after my habits.) The site even has an iOS app for your phone to help you track your progress as well as use during your training. I looked at the app, but it didn’t seem to fit me for some reason.

My brother is a serious runner. He’s run the Chicago Marathon, and earlier this year he finished in the top 500 of the Indianapolis half-marathon (out of about 30,000 runners). For years he’s been using a web site called RunKeeper. I decided to give that site a look. I was pleased to see that it offers a free app for you iOS (and perhaps Android) phones, and the app appears to offer a good set of features. I liked the idea that I could use the app and it would automatically upload my run data (distance, time, route, pace, etc.) to the web site.

Okay, I thought, I’m in. I signed up for the web site, downloaded the app, and was set to go.

I know myself well enough to be aware, however, that there was one thing still missing: motivation. I also know myself well enough to understand that public encouragement (or public humiliation) would help me to keep going. This need is met by one of the features of RunKeeper: when I upload data about a run, it posts a short notice to my Facebook feed so that the people on Facebook know I’ve exercised.

To my Facebook crowd, I announced that I was going to run the 5K, and that I would expect them to give me a hard time if I quit. This public accountability helped me get over the inertia. Other than a couple of weeks where I had to let strained medial collateral ligaments heal, I’ve been running pretty consistently since early April. I’m not setting any records, but I’m improving my endurance. I “ran” the Sunburst 5K in early June, walking parts of it and running parts of it. I finished in about 41 minutes.

What keeps me going today is not so much the Facebook accountability as one of the features on RunKeeper. After each run (or other exercise form, such as cycling), I can see the total miles I’ve put under my belt and the total calories burned. Here are the figures after this morning’s run (I took it easy this morning).

For me, this kind of feedback—watching the numbers get higher—is a great motivator. I love checking in to see how many miles I’ve accumulated. It’s fascinating to me that I can say I have now either run, walked, or biked enough miles to take me from home to Indianapolis and then some.

If you’re looking to get off your couch and start moving, but you haven’t quite figured out how to get going, let me offer these tips.

  • Watch this video on YouTube. In less than ten minutes, it explains why taking 30 minutes out of every 24 hours to be active is so important.
  • Sign up with RunKeeper. If you wish, let me know you’ve signed up and I’ll invite you to my street team. That way, I can see how you’re doing—and you can see how I’m doing. I’ll be happy to offer encouragement.
  • Download the RunKeeper app [iPhone] (here’s the Android app) to your device.
  • Get moving! With RunKeeper, you don’t have to run. You can walk, bike, cross-country ski, whatever you like. Use a stationary bike? Not a problem. You can always manually input your data (which is what I do on my non-running days).

I did these things, and I can share my results. Since I started my physical activities, I’ve lost more than ten pounds. My A1C (a blood test that measures average blood glucose over two to three months) has dropped to 5.9. Anything under 7.0 is desirable, and anything under 6.0 is great. I feel better than I have in years. Is it a lot of fun? Of course not. It’s exercise. But it is the right thing for me to do—and it’s the right thing for you to do.

Don’t let yourself get away with excuses. Don’t want to go out when it’s hot? Get up earlier in the morning. My alarm goes off at 4:45 on my running mornings. I’m out the door by 5:15, and I enjoy the quiet of running when it’s dark and just starting to get light. Don’t have an exercise bike at home? There are a gazillion places to work out in your area. Health clubs, universities, local park districts, and more. You don’t need to join an expensive gym that sucks you in with contracts. Find a place that does month-to-month fees (if any). I’m lucky in that Notre Dame has a facility that I can use for free. I used it plenty when April was cold and uninspiring. I found getting in the car and going there (or going after work) was not the drudgery I expected.

Again, the key points are these. First, go public with your new exercise goals and ask your online friends to give you grief if you quit. Second, use something like RunKeeper. Third, get out and move—regardless of any excuses you’re tempted to give.

Life has given each of us one body. We need to take care of it, and thirty minutes of physical activity each day is all we need. We have the technology to help us, so let’s all get out there and do it.



2 thoughts on “Using technology to improve your health

  1. Bill, geat post! We just released an iPhone app designed to help fellow RunKeepers to analyze their activities. Drop me a line if you’d like a promo code.

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