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Why Technology Does and Does Not Work for Weight Loss

Anyone can start a weight loss program. All it takes is a modicum of willpower and a loose plan. There are even mainstream services, such as Weight Watchers, that can provide a guide. The difficult part, and the part where most people fail, is following through. Willpower can take us only so far. We need something extra in order to stick with our plans for the long haul.

The intersection of two recent ideas can perhaps provide a solution. Both feedback loops and the quantified self involve recording data, and then viewing that data from multiple angles. It makes us aware of our behaviors and habits, and awareness is the first step to change.

Using technology to our advantage

Perhaps the biggest issue in creating feedback loops and achieving the quantified self is the actual recording of the data. After all, feedback loops only work if we can place our habits and behaviors in front of us. Thankfully, smartphones — devices we have with us at almost all times — can play a large role in data recording. There are apps specifically designed with feedback loops and the quantified self in mind for dieters.

After seeing my fiancee’s parents lose significant weight using it, I decided to download My Fitness Pal (free). The interface is straight forward: record all of your intake for the day and measure it against your activity level and exercise. The app contains a database of more than a million foods, so it’s easy to record with accuracy. It even allows you to input ingredients from recipes.

(There are many similar apps, including Calorie Counter by MyNetDiary, that do the same thing. They’re almost all free, so it’s worth browsing.)

Once you finish recording your daily intake and output, these apps then display the information in several ways. They do it numerically, showing your net calorie deficit or overage, and graphically, breaking down your macronutrients. That’s your feedback loop. And since recording is made so easy, because it’s done on a device that’s with you at all times, you can track data with accuracy.

Imperfections

This isn’t to say that technology is our savior when it comes to diet and exercise programs. While apps such as My Fitness Pal and Calorie Counter can help greatly, they’re not without flaws. There are three flaws in particular that make them imperfect elements.

Exercise. While these apps do give you credit for the exercise you perform, it’s not a perfect situation. For instance, My Fitness Pal gives you extra calories for cardio exercises, but not strength exercises. The latter can oftentimes burn more than the former, so there are inequalities there.

Storage. The data you enter into these apps isn’t stored on your device. It might not even be stored with the company itself. It’s likely stored with a third-party data center company. That means you can lose access to your data for reasons beyond your control.

Calories-in, calorie-out. All of these systems are based on the calorie-in, calorie-out theory, which might be inaccurate, according a Harvard Health study published in 2011.

On the whole, though, recording some data, and becoming aware of that data, is better than plodding along aimlessly. With so many people dropping their diet and exercise plans without realizing their goals, ideas such as feedback loops and the quantified self can help tremendously.


Joe Pawlikowski
is a fitness and technology junkie. He writes about these topics, as well as issues for telecommuters at A New Level.

June 3rd, 2012

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