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Getting Fit with a Virtual Trainer

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
March 5, 2012 Deadline
April 2012 Issue

Getting Fit with a Virtual Trainer

“Lose weight,” the doctor advised me, “or you could be headed for diabetes.”

I’m the first to admit I had added a few extra pounds while completing my doctorate. There’s a lot of sitting and reading when you’re in graduate school. When I defended my dissertation in 2010, I weighed more than 230 pounds.

Looking back 25 years, I was skinny. Not thin, either, but seriously scrawny. When I graduated from Golden West High School, I was 120 pounds with a 27-inch waist. By 2010, I was approaching twice that size.

Back pain was getting unbearable. I was using a cane frequently and hobbling about with sore knees. Yet, I couldn’t seem to lose the weight. I knew I had to, but I was stuck in a cycle of losing a few pounds and gaining them right back within weeks.

During Christmas break, I was reading health and fitness articles online. One of articles I read was about the “CNN Hero” Linda Fondren, a Mississippi resident troubled by her state’s recognition as the “fattest in the nation” for six consecutive years. In a sidebar to the article, CNN Health listed several free online tools, including the website MyFitnessPal.com.

On my own, I wasn’t making much progress. Health advocates will tell you that working out with friends is the best way to maintain a routine. If you belong to a gym or fitness center, take advantage of any personal training and nutrition consulting because having an appointment encourages you to use the membership.

The various articles I read suggested that MyFitnessPal and other online tools could help maintain a “buddy system” for diet and exercise. While I was skeptical that a free website could help me lose weight, my wife and I joined the website and downloaded the free smartphone application.

MyFitnessPal encourages you to monitor your diet and exercise with a convenient diary. You can update this diary on the website or on your smartphone. There are several similar websites, and the process I’m going to describe is similar for those sites.

When you create a MyFitnessPal account you are guided through a basic personal profile. Based on your gender, age, weight, height and target goals the system calculates your daily calorie limit, a nutrition guide and an exercise suggestion. You can enter a target weight or a weekly weight loss goal.

I decided to take it slowly and chose to lose two pounds a month. At the time, I didn’t expect to lose anything.

After the profile is prepared, you can select to share your diary with friends on MyFitnessPal or, if you’re really brave, share the daily updates with friends on Facebook and Twitter. There was no way I was going to broadcast my progress on social networks, but I did share the reports with my wife via MyFitnessPal.

The first night, I was amazed by the ease of the smartphone app. When you select a canned or packaged food, you can scan the barcode using the smartphone camera. Any user of MyFitnessPal can submit an item and its nutritional information, so the entire community on MyFitnessPal keeps the system up-to-date.

When you cook a meal, you can enter individual ingredients or a completed recipe. If someone else has already entered a recipe, you can use that information in your diary. My wife uses MacGourmet, a recipe database that also calculates nutritional information. This allows her to verify and update information on the MyFitnessPal website, helping us and other members.

I take a multivitamin and an iron supplement, which are also in the database and included in my dairy. Handy tables and charts report your daily, weekly and monthly nutritional goals. The tables show my calcium intake is short, displaying the data in bold red type.

By the third week, I had already lost the two pounds I hadn’t expected to lose. At the end of the first month, I was down five pounds.

Since MyFitnessPal proved a success, I decided to find other fitness tools.

If you search for “pedometer” online, you can find everything from a simple step counter to a complex GPS-based pedometer with an altimeter and calorie counter. Yes, the smartphone knows when you’re climbing stairs or jogging uphill.

I downloaded a free pedometer and an application for runners. It turns out, the runners’ app assumes you actually run. However, the pedometer application works well.

With the start of this school year, I vowed to walk across campus instead of parking near my classroom or office. The vow to walk more was aided by a campus schedule that placed my office and the classroom far apart. However, until recently I had no idea how much walking I was doing.

The pedometer tells me that from the faculty parking lot to my office is approximately three quarters of a mile, depending on the route I take. If I take the shorter route, it burns more calories thanks to two hills and four staircases. The longer route in distance turns out to be less intense, and my preferred route before teaching.

My wife’s iPod nano includes the Nike+ pedometer. We’re now comparing her iPod to my iPhone when we take nightly walks around a local park.

Maybe it is because the numbers are like a video game score, but with the calorie and weight loss numbers on a screen you start to feel like each day is a step in the right direction. Our mile walks became mile and half walks, and now we’re aiming for two miles several nights a week.

I’m now back in the 180s and hopefully never returning to what a classmate called a “grad student gut.” My ideal weight is still a goal, but I should reach that target sometime this summer.

Fifty pounds from my worst weight, I feel much better. Once I am at my target weight, I’ll adjust MyFitnessPal to help maintain the weight while eating healthier.

Having a “virtual trainer” has helped achieve what I had started to believe was impossible.

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