Getting fit and healthy with the least amount of effort

This post is about getting fitter and more healthy with the least amount of effort. If you’re interested in doing something similar, you’ll just need a smartphone. Having some kind of fitness tracker is well worthwhile. I’ve tried to make the most of my Apple iPhone 6S and Apple Watch, but I’m sure there are equivalents for everything I list.

First, some context. A few points have recently converged for me:

  • I recently put on a tonne of weight (ate and drank my body weight at SXSW)
  • One of the dominant themes at SXSW was how apps are not just good at gathering and presenting data, but also getting better at providing useful, timely insights to drive behaviour change. This Under Armour video gives you a flavour, if you can see past the chest thumping, although I gather the expensive products don’t quite match the promise (yet).
  • This also made me curious about the impact that my activities have on my sleep. I’ve been sleeping reasonably well lately, but there’s room for improvement. What if my phone could tell me the latest time of day I should drink coffee if I want a good night’s sleep? Or help me work out the best time to go to bed?
  • As I’m getting older, weight goes on much more easily and doesn’t come off as quickly as it used to. In spite of the fact I play football every week, I’ve been gradually putting on weight for the past 5 years or so, even though I’ve been drinking less. It’s a trend I want to address.
  • I’m suffering from a damaged rotator cuff, brought on by a lifetime of bad posture. This post isn’t about that, but my physiotherapy is part of the health picture for me. I’m working on that, too.
  • The agency I work for has a partnership with Saatchi Health (together we’re known as DigitasHealth), and so I’ve taken more of an interest in Apple’s health ecosystem as one of many initiatives
  • A while back Scott Adams claimed that he lost weight just by getting a better understanding of nutrition. The notion of health being 20% exercise related and 80% nutrition is an interesting one. I like Scott Adams.
  • I don't like gyms.

So it was time to make a few changes from a holistic standpoint. To summarise my goal: I want to improve the quality and duration of my life, without too many short term compromises, and with the minimum of effort and expense. Easy, right?!

Sidebar: I’ve had an Apple Watch for about 9 months. And my mini-review: I find notifications to be really useful, glances are pretty good, and most apps are too slow to be useful (quicker to pull out your phone). At this point, if you’re considering buying one, I’d recommend you hold out for the thinner, faster models. But version 1 does track activity, heart rate and more, and I didn’t want to buy another wearable, so I was curious what role the watch could play in this.

Also, traditional diets never work for me. Boom and bust. This new approach had to be smarter and more sustainable. Ideally I wanted to make a few key tweaks that had a big impact, add some exercise (of course), get myself down to a healthy weight level, and I can then carefully adjust to a slighter more liberal regime that allowed me to enjoy most of the things I enjoy now. #agencylife

I also can’t be bothered spending too much time evaluating every app and review that’s out there. Who’s got the time for that? I’m looking for 20% of the effort for 80% of the benefit. If you have better recommendations I’d love to hear them! In the meantime I’ve settled on a regime based largely on app popularity, convenience and personal recommendations, rather than an exhaustive search for the Best Thing Out There.

So here’s what I’ve done:

  • Started diligently logging all my food and drink. I use an app called Lifesum to do that (hat tip to Warren for the recommendation), and the free version is quick, easy and effective. It’s impossible to track food metrics with 100% accuracy - it’s too impractical to, for example, weigh and catalogue the contents of a chicken salad sandwich - but Lifesum lets you get close enough, quickly. The mere act of finding this approximation has been illuminating - it roughly breaks down the nutritional value of each item you add, helping you make smarter choices. As a result, among other things, and given the choice, I now choose brown rice over white, have one less coffee-with-sugar per day, go for chicken or fish over red meat, have a few less sandwiches, serve myself slightly smaller portions, and I drink much more water. Nice improvement without much pain. I’ve now started paying $10 a month to support the service, and it’s giving me a bunch of other features on top of the free essentials.
  • Started tracking my sleep with Sleep Cycle. The Apple Watch needs to charge at least every other night, so that couldn’t play a role as a wearable. And I didn’t want to splash out on another wearable device just to track my sleep. Sleep Cycle works by monitoring your movement at night (you point your phone’s speaker at yourself, from the bedside table), and makes some reasonable assumptions about your sleep patterns from this movement and from sound. There are quite a few articles about the accuracy of this technique (and some extensive ones for wearables as well), but just tracking the duration of sleep will help with my awareness. I’ve paid about $11 for the year to support the service, which gives you access to your sleep trends as well as data backup.
  • Probably not relevant for y’all, but as part of my physiotherapy for my rotator cuff issues, I have to spend 10 minutes a day with a rolled up towel under my back. So I thought I’d try some mindfulness meditation to pass the time, and it turns out that helps with sleep as well. Easy.
  • I’ve increased my walking and added a weekly jog to the mix. For this I use the Workout app on the watch (which isn’t the most accurate, but is good enough), and I strap my iPhone 6S to my arm using the Belkin Slim-Fit Plus Armband. This seems to be working well, as I can pause the workout and change the music using the Apple Watch, without getting the phone out of the armband. The Armband is comfortable and easy to handwash, but a pain to dry - you have to lodge something inside so the air can flow through. Maybe I’ll just have to wash it less frequently, although people report it starts to smell after a bit. Yuk. Anyway, all the data feeds into my Activity Monitor and Health App on the watch and phone, so everything’s in one place, ready to mine for insights. I’ve tracked my distances and I’m aiming to gradually increase speed and length. Nothing crazy.
  • I’m planning to try Zombies, Run! at some point. Looks like fun!
  • One challenge is tracking activity when I can’t wear my watch (such as swimming, which I haven’t done lately due to Rotator Cuff business) or when I’m not allowed to (Football). The problem is working out which app to add the activity to afterwards. If you add this kind of activity via the central Health app (see below), it doesn’t record calories burned or steps, and it doesn’t flow back to the Activity app - it all messes too much with your totals. I’ve taken to adding the activity via Lifesum, which at least means I’ve recorded KJ burned for that day (Lifesum shows a target KJ for each day, which changes as you eat and burn KJ). Think I’m going to buy a sweatband for my wrist so I can cover my watch and see if they let me play soccer with it on...still not quite ideal.
  • All of the above data finds it’s way into the Apple Health app, which is best treated as a central data repository. It’s quite utilitarian, and captures pretty much anything you can throw at it (everything from Selenium consumption to electrodermal activity to number of times fallen and much, much more) - it really is a broader wellness app rather than being focused on fitness. And it’s now soaking up all my nutrition, sleep, heart rate and activity data, plus some other things I hadn’t even thought about. For example, the barometer in the 6S is supposed to track steps climbed, although I’m not sure how it handles lifts and elevators...anyway, now I’m looking for general insights based on all this collected data, above and beyond what the above apps provide.
  • So far I’ve only tried Addapp for additional insights. It’s free and it’s pretty good, and it sends me a couple of insights and related tips each day. One of today’s tips, for example, is a link found between my carb intake and number of steps taken. It provides advice around the type of carbs to eat, and how soon prior to exercise (even walking). I’m now curious whether I should have my breakfast at home or at the office, so I might look into that. To be honest though I haven’t done much research on the insight apps side of things, so if there are other apps you think I should introduce into the mix please let me know.

As for results, I’ve introduced all of these gradually over the past 4 weeks (since SXSW!). I’ve had an overseas trip in that time, with lots of food and alcohol consumed, but I tracked everything diligently, held back a couple of times when normally I’d go all-in, and got back on the horse quickly when the trip was over. Long story short, this regime is already working - my weight is falling off, I’m feeling better about myself, but I know these are early days and we can’t assess sustainability for a good while yet. Writing this blog will hopefully help keep me honest.

One other point. I’m sure most health insurance companies offer tools that do all or some of the above. But if I have to lock my data into a health ecosystem, I’d rather it’s one I’ve trusted for years (Apple) than a health insurer I might change at any time. This also means I’m free to experiment with other apps as part of a collective suite bound together by the Apple Health datastore - so if you’ve got any recommendations I’d love to know.

If you’ve made it this far, I hope you’ve found it useful. Happy healthing!