(This blog was originally written for and posted on UNC Campus Recreation’s health and fitness blog, the Tar Heel Tone Up.)
In this time of omnipresent technology, many health-conscious individuals are using their phones to track measures of fitness and nutrition information as part of an overall healthy lifestyle. Apps such as MyFitness Pal and Livestrong have made it routine for some people to track their calorie intake, calorie expenditure, active time per day, and even water intake.
If you have an iPhone and you’re running iOS 8, you’ll notice a new default app has been added to your phone. The app has a white background and a single pink heart and it is simply named “Health.”
When you first open the app, it can seem pretty confusing. There are several empty graphs, with options to chart everything from weight, to blood pressure, blood glucose, and even magnesium. There is a main menu of eight categories of measurements that you can choose from, and you’ll definitely want to limit yourself to choosing a handful of them to display on your dashboard, because displaying them all would be completely overwhelming! Most of the category names are self-explanatory, but the “results” category with a little Erlenmeyer flask icon beside of it is for tracking the results of regular medical tests for individuals who require them often, so you can input your results and avoid saving the paper print-outs each time. Instead, you can see your blood alcohol content or your oxygen saturation in graph form over time.
For each category you choose, you can select that category and then turn on the switch to “show on dashboard.” This will show you a graph of any data from this category on your main dashboard next time you open the app! An example of a good set of metrics to show might be “weight,” “active calories,” “dietary calories,” “fiber,” “sodium,” and “blood pressure.”
You can also choose to display certain categories that might be of special interest to you based on your health status, such as “blood glucose,” for diabetics, and “iron” if you are anemic or planning on donating blood anytime soon.
The confusing and slightly inconvenient aspect of the app to many individuals is the fact that you can’t really make the most of the usefulness of this app by inputting data points into the app directly. For example, the app doesn’t track the calories in specific foods you eat or the number of steps you take in a day. Instead, the app is intended to be used in conjunction with other health and fitness apps, which you can set to share their data with the health app to generate your graphs and results automatically.
If you already have and use other fitness apps, linking them to share their data with the health app is simple. All you need to do is launch any of your other health apps, enter the “settings” or “profile” area of that app, and look for the option to “share” information with the Health app. You can also adjust exactly what information from that app will be shared with the health app, such as only calories consumed, or only steps taken per day (which can be configured with the health app if you’re already using FitBit!) The option that says “read” lets you set what information the app of interest can use from what is already in your Health app, and the option that says “write” lets you adjust what information from the app of interest will be shared with the Health app.
This is the view you’ll see from inside “MyFitness Pal.”
And this is the view you’ll see from inside the “Sources” tab in the Health app.
If you don’t currently have any other health and fitness apps but would like to try a few in conjunction with the new Health app, here are the three I would suggest starting with:
- MyFitness Pal: This is probably, by far, the best dietary tracker app out there. It’s free on the app store and has the nutrition information available for over three million foods, including foods served at specific restaurants and even at Ram’s Head Dining Hall here at UNC. You can also track calorie expenditure with 350 tracking options for cardio and strength training exercises!
- Withings: This free app features an icon of a person with an overlaid pair of 4-quadrant butterfly wings meant to symbolize four categories of health (weight, activity, heart health, and sleep) that are monitored in the app. You’ll get supportive messages from the app and the butterfly wings will grow and shrink depending on your health status, reminding you that you might need to get some more sleep or exercise tomorrow!
Did you know that your phone’s back camera can measure your heart rate? Whaaaat? Now you have to try it, don’t you…?
- Cody: This is a free fitness app that encourages you to workout with comments and cheers from other users. The best feature of the app is the collection of exercise instructions with picture, video, and text instruction!
Perhaps the best feature of the Health app has nothing to do with the graphs and data coming in from other fitness apps. At the bottom of the screen, you’ll notice a tab of the menu in the bottom, right corner that says “Medical ID.” By selecting this tab, you can create a personal medical ID where you can input your name, height, weight, blood type, pre-existing medical conditions, allergies, and all medications you take. You choose what information you want to provide and what you do not. You can also link emergency contacts from your phone’s contact list into the medical ID. This is an extremely valuable feature of the new Health app because it can be accessed from the lock screen under the “emergency” option without requiring your phone password. If you are ever in an emergency situation where you are hurt, unconscious, or otherwise unable to speak to the people or medical professionals trying to help you, first responders are aware of this new feature and will check to see if you have set up your medical ID to give them valuable information quickly when they need it. It also doubles as a way for someone to get in touch with one of your linked contacts if you happen to lose your phone with a passcode set on it, without allowing them to access any of your other information. This is a feature that I would encourage every iOS 8 user to set up; you never know what could happen and it’s definitely best to be prepared!
The present is a time of technology, but it is also a time of poor overall health in the United States. Certainly there are more people who use iPhones everyday than people who get enough physical activity each week, or people who eat enough vegetables on a daily basis. I appreciate the fact that Apple has placed a useful health tool in the hands of millions of Americans, reminding them that “heath” is something that requires attention, monitoring, and effort. Perhaps the health app will encourage more people to be aware of the components of a healthy lifestyle, and might even encourage them to download and link other free apps to help them develop healthy habits and personal awareness of where they can work to improve their health in their own life.