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There’s no denying it. With our fast-paced schedules, we don’t make it easy for ourselves when it comes to healthy eating, physical activity and overall well-being.

The people who develop health applications for smartphones and tablets know that. That’s why they’re offering a wealth of apps designed to help us live healthier lives on the go.

But do these health apps work? Can they help us make better choices around nutrition, fitness and health?

To answer these questions, I downloaded some of the leading health-related apps and tried them out.  I was pleasantly surprised by how much some of the apps helped me, given that an app can only do so much before my own decision-making and self-control come into play. And in a few instances, I was delighted to discover that some well-known productivity apps could be useful for tracking health.

My mini-reviews follow. We’d love to hear – in the comments below or on our Facebook page – how well these work for you and what other health apps you find useful. First, a few qualifiers:

  • All apps in this review are available both for Apple’s iOS and Android devices. All are also available for download in the iTunes store.
  • The focus here is on free apps. For many of the ones reviewed, advanced features are available for purchase.
  • I tested these apps in the Triangle area, where there’s an abundance of healthy food choices. Smaller towns and rural areas might not return as many results when using an app for, say, restaurants that offer heart-healthy options.

 

Nutrition

healthyoutHealthyOutLove to go out to eat, but hate the calories that come with dining out? HealthyOut lets you select dietary options (gluten free, Weight Watchers, heart healthy, paleo, low fat, etc.) and will find local restaurants that have meal options to meet your needs. After the app suggests restaurants matching your requirements, it shows how many dishes meet the criteria you’ve filtered for.

This app gets props for being easy to use and for its ability to recommend restaurants and dishes that meet dietary needs. One drawback is a somewhat limited database: It won’t pull information for all of the restaurants in your area.

big-ovenBigOven: This app allows you to search recipes by ingredient, keyword or recipe name, but it also allows you to create a grocery list, and you can store your favorite recipes in the app. One of my favorite features is a leftover tool: Simply look in your fridge, enter up to three leftover ingredients that you find, and BigOven will generate recipes based on what you have on hand. Pretty handy when you’re in a hurry – or if you’re like me and have trouble keeping enough ingredients in the house to cook an inspired meal.

This app loses points because you have to create an account within the app before you can store your favorite recipes. However, once the account is set up, it’s like having a personal cookbook with all of your favorite recipes right on your phone.

inrfoodInRFood: By searching a product name or using a bar code scanner in the app, you can find out the ingredients used in the food you eat and whether those ingredients are helpful or harmful to you. You can also search by food allergies so you know which foods you can eat.

It’s neat to be able to search foods to see what’s in there, and one of my favorite features of the app is that it will actually explain why something is good or bad for you. It’s also easy to use, especially with the bar code scanner. One drawback is that to get the full features of the app, you have to purchase the upgrade. But you can still log your food and check ingredients with the free version.

Added bonus: InRFood is based in Durham and was a winner of BCBSNC’s Health Innovation Challenge in 2012.

zipongoZipongo: Trying to eat healthy and on a budget can sometimes be difficult. Zipongo uses your location and lets you select your favorite grocery stores, and then tells you what healthy items are on sale that day, so you know where to get your favorite healthy foods for less. It will also plan healthy meals for you, and create a shopping list with everything you need to create the dish.

Zipongo is a little hard to navigate to select your favorite grocery store and what meals you want recipes for. You also have to create an account within the app to use it. The best use for the app is to see which healthy items are on sale at grocery stores near you.

 

Fitness

nikeplusNike+ Training Club: This is like having a personal trainer on your phone. Nike+ Training Club supplies workouts for all levels, beginner to advanced, and you can also tell the app what you want the focus of your workout to be – strength-building, toning, etc. You can look at pictures and download videos to see trainers and athletes demonstrate the components of the work out. They have a large library of workouts, so there are plenty of ways to switch it up.

This is one seriously good app that has a loyal following. Even if you can’t make it to a gym, as long as you have this app handy, you can work out almost anywhere. My favorite feature is the ability to watch a demonstration video, click the “Do Workout” button and then sync with an iTunes playlist. Then it’s go time! There’s a trainer in your ear that will come on and tell you when it’s time to move on to the next exercise.

mapmyrunMapMyRun/MapMyFitness: These companion apps by the same developer are great for logging workouts and tracking your fitness. They also have the ability to sync with health devices like Fitbit and Jawbone to share data with other devices you’re using to track your fitness. You can also log your food and find friends.

These apps do a great job tracking fitness, and they’re widely used so I enjoy being able to connect with friends on this app. However, I almost exclusively use the MapMyRun app while running to track my mile pace and distance – my favorite feature.

fitocracyFitocracy: Here you can create an account where you log your workouts and earn points to receive “Achievement” badges. You can also complete “Quests,” optional exercises to boost your fitness, to receive additional points. The more points you earn, the more badges you get. This app is known for its motivation options in the form of friends and groups that help keep up your morale along your fitness journey.

I like the concept of getting motivational messages, and it’s nice to have another user on the app send you a message like “Great job on fitting in your workout today!” However, that wasn’t enough to keep me hooked because I like the fitness tracking components in the other apps better. There just wasn’t much there to keep me coming back for more.

 

Overall Health

argusArgusOne of the best new health apps on the market, Argus tracks everything from movement to hydration to sleep cycles and more. It’s user-friendly and has a newsfeed for your personal health statistics. It will give you feedback for areas of improvement, and you can track your progress towards your goals every day.

The single sign-on through Facebook makes it easy to access. I can link my Fitbit to the app, or I can turn on my iPhone 5s’s M7 motion core processor (only available on the iPhone 5s) and the app can track my steps without a device. I can add tiles to my health stats newsfeed to track progress towards various goals. The app – currently available only for iPhone – also provides a snapshot of your overall health.

evernoteEvernote: Evernote – the productivity app used by millions – digitally stores and tracks your to-do lists, ideas, links to websites and more. I included it here because I use it to keep a running “idea bank” of health and fitness goals. Whenever I hear about a new restaurant to try or a fitness goal to achieve, I save it in Evernote. Stress reduction is an important part of overall well-being, and this app can help reduce stress by keeping you organized so you’re not trying to always remember that last item on your to do list.

This app is a great place to store ideas, photos, notes, work documents, and it can sync with your computer and other devices so you can have your information when you need it. However, the app is sophisticated and has the capability to do more than just simple note keeping. You can set alarm reminders, create lager notebooks to categorize your notes, tag notes to be able to search by keyword, and more. This app is an organizer’s dream.

mint-ipad-app-iconMint: Mint helps you see where your money goes each month, so you don’t end up in a budget bind. I use it to track spending on food and other categories. In addition to other budgeting categories, there’s one for health-related spending which can track things like gym fees, sports expenses, pharmacy expenses and doctors visits.

You can link Mint to your bank, credit cards and retirement account and it will give you an infographic-style charts to see where you spend your money and what percentage of your monthly budget has been spent.

Financial wellness is a growing focus area for achieving an overall state of well-being. After making sure your basic needs are met and planned for, you can then use your energy to focus on fitness goals and making healthy choices.

 

 

About Allison Bonner

Allison Bonner worked in Community Relations at Blue Cross NC where she coordinated and oversaw community partnerships and employee volunteer opportunities.