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Can a FitBit and an iPhone Help Me Lose Weight?


A writer goes on a personal journey to get in shape -- and to get some insight into the booming digital health industry.

I'm 5'10" and 207 pounds.

Medically, that means I'm overweight and on the verge of obesity.

I have a history of disciplinary problems when it comes to food and no desire to go the gym, so I'm doing what any rational person in my situation would do: I'm throwing my Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone at the problem.

The Back Story

I've had serious ups and downs with my weight for over a decade. I've been as low as 162 pounds and as high as 235, with plenty of 20-25 pounds swings.

There's a simple pattern I haven't been able to shake: rapid weight loss from extremely disciplined dieting, followed by a slow creep back up as the junk food somehow made its way back into my life.

Following a serious medical scare in March, I cleaned my eating up and started getting more exercise. And I'm once again worried that I won't be able to keep it together.

I'm only 36, but it's clear that I was basically getting ready for a heart attack down the road. I had enough risk factors: family history, high cholesterol, lack of exercise, too much stress, etc.

Into early May, the weight came right off as I eliminated mainstays like fried chicken, cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, and potato chips. But after dropping about eight pounds, I hit the wall. Maybe my metabolism has taken a big hit in the past few years, but I'd been eating fairly well and exercising, but the excess weight just isn't coming off.

I need help.

Enter the Internet of Things

We're entering a whole new era where countless 'things', ranging from toilet bowls to train locomotives to oil rigs, will be collecting, transmitting, and analyzing data in ways we can't even imagine today.

One of the hottest areas within the Internet of Things movement has been wearable health and fitness trackers from brands like FitBit and Jawbone.

Tech giants Apple, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), and Samsung (OTCMKTS:SSNLF) all have new digital health initiatives involving digital sensors.

Apple specifically seems primed to make a big splash, based upon the announcement of its new HealthKit for iOS 8 platform and its new 'Strength' ad campaign. The iPhone 6 will almost certainly have built-in health tracking sensors, as will the iWatch (if it exists).

So I Went All In

Last week, I loaded up (NASDAQ:AMZN) and ordered a FitBit One wireless activity tracker to monitor my physical activity. The One is a tiny little doohickey that sits in your pocket, keeping track of steps, distance, calories burned, stairs climbed, and sleep patterns.

I also bought a FitBit Aria Wi-FI Smart Scale to keep track of my weight, body fat percentage, and BMI.

Data from both devices gets wirelessly synced to the FitBit app and website, which in turn I synced to the popular MyFitnessPal app.

Setup for both was pretty easy, and I was impressed with how quickly everything synced up. I stepped on the scale in my bathroom Saturday morning, and by the time I got back to my computer, which was less than a minute later, both the FitBit and MyFitnessPal apps were updated.

MyFitnessPal has an extensive nutritional database, which combined with the FitBit data, gives me an estimation of how many calories I'm consuming and burning in real-time on my iPhone.

Later on, my exercise data will be synced up, and I'll have an estimation of my net caloric intake for the day.

Researchers from Iowa State University recently found that wireless fitness trackers have errors ranging from 9.3% to 23.5%. And we can't always rely on calorie counts for fresh foods because quantities can't always be measured perfectly. A simple tablespoon of olive oil can add 120 calories to a meal.

However, I don't care about scientific accuracy as much as accountability. If I don't have numbers to work with, I can very easily lie to myself about how well I'm eating.

Now, I'll know if I'm allowed scarf down a giant bowl of popcorn (oil-popped and salted, of course) at night while I'm watching TV.

Will authority in the form of data keep me on the straight and narrow?

I'm about to find out.

Personal Goals

Long-term, I just want to be healthy and stay physically active as long as possible, but I have a few specific objectives in mind for 2014.

I want to weigh 185 pounds or less, and lose four inches on my waist line. Strength-wise, I want to do 100 pushups in a row, so I'm looking at apps designed for that task. I can do about 20 now, so I've got a long way to go.

I also want to walk around the perimeter of Manhattan, which is about 32 miles. I'm something of an urban hiker and 10- to 15-mile walks are pretty routine for me. It's time to up the ante.

And I must accomplish all this without setting foot in a gym or using extreme nutritional restrictions.

I'm happy to eat well most of the time, but at least once a week, I need a bacon cheeseburger with fries, and a giant chocolate chip cookie. I'd also like a cocktail or three every so often.

What I Want to Learn

The digital fitness movement is a mega-trend, and I want to learn as much I can about the business side of it all so I can cover it effectively for Minyanville readers. The best way for me to learn is to actually live it from the point of view of the customer.

Most importantly, I want to see if this is a case of technology truly doing good in people's lives. Americans spend over $60 billion per year trying to lose weight, yet we keep getting heavier and heavier. Maybe technology can help.

There is a huge gamification and social media component with FitBit and related products, which encourage users to post results publicly and compare them to others. (You can add me as a friend on FitBit here)

It feels like a constructive slant on the "Me! Me! Me!" selfie culture on Facebook (NASDAQ:FB)  and Twitter (NASDAQ:TWTR) today.

It's easy to get some attention by taking a picture of your legs on the beach and slapping an Instagram filter on. But if you want to let people know how fit you are by running 10 miles, you gotta put in some work.

Stay tuned! I'll be back next week with an update on my progress, and some more serious analysis of the industry.

Click here for the next update to this story.

Twitter: @MichaelComeau

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