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posted: 2/18/2013 5:16 AM

Health, fitness apps make smartphones an exercise tool

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By Cynthia H. Craft
Sacramento Bee

When Jon Mead, a devoted cyclist, visits a new city, he goes right to his smartphone app Strava to find the best bike routes. In his hometown, Sacramento, Calif., the 24-year-old uses MapmyRide to track his course in an archive.

Bethany Scribner, a runner who also works at the fitness gear retailer, likes the apps MapmyRun and Livestrong, which tracks nutrition in a daily pie chart showing fat, protein and carbs. Saucony Run4Good is a favorite, too, said Scribner, 21, because the company donates to anti-obesity programs for kids if enough runners cover enough miles.

MapMyRide, MapMyRun, Livestrong, Run4Good, MyFitnessPal -- they're all part of an exploding arena of health and fitness applications for smartphones. The trend, which falls under the umbrella of Health 2.0, an international tech movement, is proving an obsession for programmers at code-a-thons, as well as users who get hooked on tracking their workouts, calorie intake and weight loss.

Among users, this is an activity as addictive as Twitter is for some and Facebook is for others.

The Pew Research Center, in a new report titled Mobile Health 2012, found smartphone owners in the vanguard, with 52 percent gathering health information on their palm-sized microcomputers. That compares with 6 percent of owners of regular cellphones, the report said.

In addition, Pew found, 19 percent of smartphone owners have at least one health app on their devices -- with exercise, diet and calorie-counting programs the most popular.

Overall, the proportion of cellphone owners who use their phones to access health data nearly doubled from 17 percent two years ago to 31 percent today, according to the report.

Ale Lauth is a senior health educator for Kaiser Permanente. She has witnessed the trend firsthand in her role as wellness guru for hundreds of Kaiser employees and physicians.

"The apps have come a long way, and they're constantly upgrading" Lauth said.

And it's not just fitness. There's a parallel world of apps geared to other aspects of health and wellness: iTriage, iFirstAidLite, InstantHeartRate, CuresA-Z, not to mention a host of downloadable apps such as OvulationCalendar that help women track their menstrual and fertility cycles. And, yes, there are apps with tips for carrying on when that fertility cycle is spot on.

The American Medical Association has launched its own consumer weight app, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the National Coordinator of Health Information Technology held a contest for the best app to help consumers identify and reduce their risk of heart disease.

The next phase is already in the works: apps that will transform your smartphone into a regulated medical device. Think of phones as electrocardiography, or ECG, machines that can detect abnormal heart rhythms and determine if a patient is having a heart attack.

Such clinical apps will not go forward without approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration.

For now, most physicians are happy to see patients using simple apps to motivate them to exercise, eat well and lose weight.

MyFitnessPal has emerged as one of the more popular apps in this category, allowing users to set weight-loss goals, then diligently chart calories consumed, calories burned and poundage.

"These are great motivators," said Lauth. "When you hit your goals, you and your friends see the results."

Others in this category flash smiley-faces or other positive on-screen icons as rewards. They also offer preprogrammed verbal pats-on-the-back.

Says Lauth, "It's like they are saying, 'You are fantabulous!'"

Scribner says she likes the social network aspect of workout apps.

"You can compete with your friends over your course, and it shows your elevation," she said. "Simply hit go."

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