If you're like most people, the New Year is when you promise yourself that "this will be the year I lose weight and get fit". Given that you're probably going to indulge over Christmas, here's how to lose weight, PC Advisor style.
First of all, this isn't an article about what or how much to eat. We'll leave that to you to decide. What we'll explain here is how tech - and in particular the latest wave of wearable devices - can help you for the first time see the exact number of steps you took, how many minutes you were active during the day and even motivate you to do that bit more. With the help of apps on the smartphones in our pockets, you can analyse your sleep patterns and track everything you eat and drink.
It all builds up to a detailed picture of how you're doing, and which areas in which you need to focus to lose weight and generally get healthier.
In this feature we’ve picked our favourite fitness gadgets, ones we’ve actually seen have an impact on real people, so that you can make the changes in 2015 that will help you lose weight and get fit.
How to lose weight using gadgets: Diet
While many of us think that the only way to get fit is to don the Lycra of punishment and hit the treadmill, it could all be in vain if we then tuck into a Mars bar on the way home from the gym. Diet is an incredibly important part of a fitness program and a healthier lifestyle in general. Sadly the pace of modern living, and the proliferation of cheap snack foods, can make it a challenge to make good dietary choices when we’re tired or in a hurry. One of the real issues is realising how many calories are in each thing we consume. Thankfully there are a few free apps available that can make this daily battle a lot easier.
Myfitnesspal is an excellent free service that allows you to track your calorie intake via apps on your phone (it’s available on all platforms) or its website. You start off by entering your height, weight, age, then set the kind of target you want to achieve, say lose twelve pounds in twelve weeks. Myfitnesspal works out the amount of calories you can eat each day to reach your goal, and then you keep a food diary on the app, which deducts each item you consume from your daily allowance. It’s a little cumbersome at first, but after a couple of days you soon get into the swing, and the results can be very surprising. Having to record each item you eat, and seeing the cost in calories, is quite shocking. Little things that you never thought about before suddenly become considered purchases.
You can record your weight each day and the app will track your progress, and there’s even a social aspect where you see any friends who also use the service and can encourage each other when you hit milestones. As long as you’re realistic about your goals, and remember to use the app each day, Myfitnesspal can have you shedding pounds at a steady rate. It also works in collaboration with many of the activity tracker devices on the market, so you’ll build up a detailed picture of your diet and physical activities on a day to day basis. Fooducate is also another excellent choice for many of the same features, while focussing on showing you exactly what’s in the food that you eat.
One of the first issues people run into when changing their diet is the simple confusion of what meals to eat. The NHS has noticed this and, as part of its Change4Life program, has released the BeFoodSmart app on iOS and Android. It’s packed with over one hundred recipe ideas and a complete meal planner for healthy living. Admittedly the design is a little childish, replete with bright colours and cartoon style text, but the content is very good. Each day you can either select from the library of meals yourself or ask the app to randomly allocate recipes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. When you’re happy with the selection just hit the ‘Add to basket’ option and it creates a complete shopping list of ingredients, neatly stored in the app, which you can then use when you go to the supermarket. Very simple to use, and the food is pretty tasty too. You can also try Recipes & Nutrition on Android, or Mealboard on iOS.
How to lose weight using gadgets: Sleep
Getting a good night’s rest might seem straightforward enough, but research shows that one in three people in the UK suffer from poor sleep. This a bigger deal than you might think, as the NHS reports that you’re 30 percent more likely to be obese if you regularly get less than seven hours per night. This lack of rest can also increase your chance of diabetes, heart disease, and a reduced sex drive.
So a great way to stay fit is to get your head down. To help with this you can use several apps that log the amount of sleep you get and can also monitor the quality by analysing your movements. Sleepcycle is an excellent way to use your iPhone to track your sleep patterns and has an alarm designed to wake you in your lightest sleep phase, which can make the morning chorus more inviting. Android users can find the same kind of features in Sleep As Android or SleepBot. Alternatively you can use wristband activity trackers such as the Fitbit Flex
How to lose weight using gadgets: Fitness on the move
Years ago the only mobile fitness devices you could buy were dumb bells and a Sony Walkman with a particularly upbeat mixed tape inside. Things have changed considerably and now there is an entire section of the tech industry dedicated to improving your physique.
One device that has been around in various guises for a long time is the humble Pedometer, which tracks how many steps you take each day. These can be picked up in sports shops for less than £20 and are a useful tool for encouraging you to take the stairs or walk rather than take the bus in order to reach a daily target. For a little more money there’s the Jawbone Up Move (£40) which adds Bluetooth syncing of your step totals to an app on your smartphone or PC. It also tracks your sleep and the app includes lots of tips and motivational hints.
If you like to run then there’s a formidable range of options open to you. Heart rate monitors have been used by runners for many years, with models such as the Polar RC3 GPS (£250) now including advanced features that can help you maximise your sessions. GPS sensors allow the device to guide you along preordained routes, while also keeping a record of your pace and how long you stay in the optimised zone for your heart. There’s even a feature that can guide you back to your start point if you get lost. If you don’t need all this information then you can always try Polar’s FT1 (£46.50) which is a more traditional heart rate monitor in a sports watch frame, designed for those starting out on a fitness program.
Your smartphone also offers plenty of running apps, with several of our favourites coming from Runtastic. Its flagship app Runtastic Pro is available on iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and Blackberry, delivering many of the same features of dedicated hardware. One we love is the ability to use a playlist for your run which will introduce a power song (one you choose that always drives you on) if you start to flag along the way, or even cheering you as you arrive at parts of your route. The company also offers apps for Cycling, Mountain Biking, Walking, Push Ups, and achieving that elusive Six Pack.
Whereas your phone can achieve impressive results, you don't always want it tracking your GPS position if you hope to have any battery life by late afternoon. So instead you can use an activity tracker such as the Fitbit Surge (£199), which does the tracking for you and then syncs up with your phone when you launch the dedicated app.
In the Fitbit app you can set the amount of steps you wish to walk in a day (the World Health Organisation recommend 10,000), how many calories you want to burn, and it can also monitor your sleep patterns at night to ensure that you're getting the right amount of rest.
See the chart of best activity trackers of 2014
How to lose weight and get in shape with technology: Fitness at home
The gym can be an intimidating place, not to mention expensive. Unless you live next door, you’ll also have to get to the gym, which gives you an excuse not to go. For a fitness regime to succeed it needs have as few barriers as possible. After all, if we had amazing willpower and drive we’d already be fit.
A program also has to be varied and interesting to avoid the monotonous repetition of press-ups and squats with only a target number to drive you on. This is where games consoles come into their own. The Xbox Kinect, Playstation Move and Wii controller turn their respective machines into a personal gym, complete with personal trainer, and all in your living room.
Using motion tracking technology, and cameras on the Xbox Kinect, games such as Your Shape: Fitness Evolved, Nike+ Kinect Training, and UFC Personal Trainer monitor your body to see if you’re keeping up with the various challenges in the games. It’s a much easier, and safer, way to work out at home than using DVDs as you get feedback in real time and can see where you’re going wrong.
Most fitness games also lay out a plan for you to achieve goals in certain timeframes, and have social elements that allow you to compete against friends or even work out together. Having games built-in helps keep the motivation to train high. Rather than the solitary experience of a gym, where you need to keep your own records and in many cases devise your own plan, the convenience of having this level of personalised training in your home is truly a breakthrough in fitness. You still have to put in the hard yards yourself, but there’s a lot here to keep you pushing on to the body you want.
If the gym simulation still leaves you cold, then titles such as Zumba Fitness, Dance Central 3, and Just Dance 4 can also get you in great shape, as long as you don’t mind shaking your tail feather. Working in a similar way to the fitness games, these require you to match the routines of the dancers on the screen. There are no gentle waltzes on these titles though, and as the levels progress things get quite sweaty. Excellent fun and you’ll look amazing on the dance floor of the next work party.
The real advantage to the games mentioned above is that, as they’re all a little older now, the combined cost of them and the console is still going to be less than a years’ membership at the gym. This means you don’t need to be a gamer to buy the console, just someone who wants to save money and get in shape. Plus these devices take up virtually no room in your home. There are plenty of traditional fitness apparatus available, including rowing machines, advanced home fitness bikes such as the Wahoo Kickr (£949), and home gyms, but for the majority of people we think the console is the most cost and space efficient option around. For those with deeper pockets you could even invest in the new XBox One (£430), which offers the XBox Fitness service featuring workouts from some of the top names in fitness such as Jillian Michaels, Shaun T, and Tracy Anderson.
Of course you’ll want some decent scales to accurately measure your progress (especially if your goal is losing weight). The Withings Body Analyser (£130) can record your body fat, heart rate, and even the air quality in the room, all of which is synced to the cloud via Wi-Fi; the data is then accessible via a smartphone app.
How to lose weight and get in shape with technology: Compete with friends
One of the best things about the current riches of fitness technology is that most of it works in unison. You can manage your diet and sleep patterns on your phone, then record your console workout with a wristband, and put it all together on a website for the world to see. Getting in shape still requires discipline, effort and persistence, but with this sort of information gathering at your fingertips, and the incentivised thrill of winning rewards regularly along the way, it can seem a lot less like a hard slog.
Try the calorie app, or even splash out for a console, and if you stick at it for three months we’re quite convinced that you’ll see a marked improvement. You might not be bionic, but you’ll feel like a million dollars.
See also: 10 tips to hit your steps goal every day