So a few months back this chica Christine sent me an email about a health/fitness site she was working on. She was looking for people who would try it out when it was done & give some feedback.
"For me, I think the main problem with being fit and eating healthy is motivation. It's an abstract, overwhelming goal. I think the best way to counter this is to turn it into winnable games and small victories. So... my app makes living healthy, and fitness into a RPG game, where users earn points, 'level up', and earn badges as they accomplish their health goals. Everytime they add something healthy like veggies to their diet, they earn points. Everytime they complete a workout, they earn points. As they achieve more and more, they'll level up and unlock badges, and discounts/coupons to rewards like spas, health foods, maybe even sweet and semi-healthy things like raw chocolate."
Now I will admit to you that this sounded kind of bizarre to me. It appeared to combine a thing I've never understood (RPG games) with a thing I've never been able to make functional (tracking what I eat online). But I am a (mostly) nice person so I told her that sure, if she wanted to send me a link when she was done, I'd give it a try & let her know what I thought.
Well, a couple of weeks ago I got another email from Christine with a link to the finished project, which is called SlimKicker. Genuinely curious about how it all turned out, I created an account and have been playing around with it. And I have to say, it's actually been really interesting & informative.
How it works:
1) Sign up for a free account & enter your basic information (name, height, weight, age, gender, activity level, goals).
2) Choose a reward for your first "level up" if you so desire. (I have not been doing this because I'm mostly just playing around with it, but some of the suggestions include a cheat meal or a splurge purchase.) You can upload a picture of your reward to appear on your Dashboard page if you so desire.
3) Log your food & exercise & earn points. I love that the points toward your level-ups come from logging healthy behaviors (ie, you get 1 pt for logging a food, +20 for a serving of fruit or veggies, a point for every minute of physical activity, including things like housework & gardening, etc.) and not weight loss. (There is no way I could get behind it otherwise.)
4) Complete week-long challenges to earn additional points (ie, "20 push-ups every day" for +500, "No snacks after dinner" for +500, "Skip the elevator" for +700, "A new veggie a day" for +800, etc.). As you level up, you unlock additional challenges.
This is the default image the site assigned me since I didn't upload one. Don't I look hardcore? I also did not pick a reward so it looks like my reward is a set of little glass pikachus.
The food database seems pretty darn extensive, moreso than other online programs like this I've used in the past. When I eat something that's not in there, I can usually find something pretty close to substitute that I feel like will have more or less the same nutritional values. For example, I had a chicken pesto sandwich the other day from the pub across the street. Obviously that is not in the database and there's no way for me to find the actual nutritional values, but searching for 'chicken pesto sandwich' returned about 20 items & I just used the one that seemed to be about the same size & have pretty similar ingredients.
(With any kind of online food/activity tracking application, you have to accept that you're only ever going to get reasonably good approximations. The vast majority of the time, I've found the level of precision to be totally adequate for seeing & keeping track of long-term trends.)
Things I've learned:
1) I am *shocked* at how little fat, salt (except when we go out), and cholesterol I apparently eat. SHOCKED. (Well...on most days. One day I went from being at about 20% of my daily salt limit to WAAAAY over it by having a piece of smoked salmon in an attempt to up my protein without adding to the carbs & sugar.)
2) I eat way, WAY more carbs than SlimKicker thinks I'm supposed to, even with my activity level on the highest setting. Like 160-200%.
3) My sugar consumption is not particularly high, but given how little added sugar I eat, I was surprised that it's as high as it is. What I'd consider to be a low-sugar day is usually just about right on, and an average-sugar day is a bit high. (Basically, if I have any kind of dessert or fruit juice, it's game over right there.)
4) I eat a more reasonable amount of protein & fiber, but still apparently not really enough. Right now it is VERY hard to reach the bar on either of these guys without overshooting salt, sugar, or carbs.
5) My total calories are usually right on or a little under.
Right after my usual breakfast (1 cup plain nonfat yogurt, 2/3 cup Nature's Path granola, 1 cup strawberries, & 20 almonds). You can see what I mean about the sugar & carbs. Nature's Path is pretty low sugar as granolas go, but the natural milk sugars in yogurt are significant.
The pros & cons:
- I am a numbers person who likes earning points and gold stars. I get an unreasonable thrill out of entering my 8-mile run or my two cups of vegetables & seeing a big ol' "+65" or "+20" dumped into my progress bar, even though I don't even have a reward I'm working towards. I'm all, "YEAH!!! Take THAT, bitches!!!!" even though there are in fact no bitches involved to take anything from me.
- Speaking of which, I like that it's not competitive. You can have friends and groups, but the site doesn't compare your points or progress to other people's.
- If you want, you can go into the settings & adjust the nutrient levels from what the app assigned to you based on your info.
- A lot of the point-earning behaviors are things I would do & have been doing for years anyway, but I've found that the tracking & getting points actually has changed my diet, which I think was already reasonably good, in some positive ways. (ie, I've been eating more vegetables, fruits, protein, & healthy fats, & less sugars & carbs.) I didn't go into this with the intent of losing weight, but the fact remains that after about three weeks I weigh 4.5 pounds less than I did when I started, which is well beyond the usual day-to-day variation.
- There are no penalties for going over your calorie / nutrient thresholds; if you're at a birthday party & decide that by golly you're going to have some cake & ice cream & screw the sugar threshold today, you can do so without fear of reprisal. The app counts on rewards for positive behaviors to motivate you. (Besides, no one's going to make you log that cake...)
- Again, I like that although you can enter & track your weight if you want, you don't earn points for dropping pounds.
Or con, singular, I guess, so far. My one real complaint is that your calorie & nutrient thresholds are set, and determined by whatever info you enter (age, height, weight, activity level, goals) when you first create your account, as opposed to similar sites that set your levels initially at what they should be if you were basically inactive, then increase them as you log physical activities based on how many extra calories you've burned.
There are five activity levels to choose from -- Beginner (trying to get into shape), Lightly active (1-3 days/week), Moderately active (3-5 days/week), Very active (6-7 days/week), & Extra Active (athlete/training). This makes it tough because being active 4 days a week, for example, can mean 4 days of light yoga or short, easy jogs, or it can mean 4 days of heavy marathon & strength training. It also makes it hard to account for variation in your weeks. (We all know how hard it is to average these things.)
Initially I went with "Very active (6-7 days/week)," but that had me eating around 1400 calories a day, which felt really low to me for someone who is "very active." So, even though I don't feel like I'm necessarily in the "Extra Active (athlete/training)" category, I switched my settings to that, which puts my calories at more like 1700 a day. I'm sure it all averages out, but I think I'd still prefer a model where the thresholds change as you enter your activities for the day.
If nothing else, it's gotten me to pay more attention what I'm eating nutrient-wise instead of just focusing on calories. Yes, it's nice to be a runner & be all like, "But I HAVE to eat all these healthy carbs, I have to FUEL my RUN," but the fact is that most of us should probably be getting more of those carbs from fruits & vegetables & less from breads & pasta. Also, if I'm getting the amount of protein & fat that I should be, I don't actually have the calorie budget for that stuff anyway.
I've recently been told I should be getting more calcium as well, so that's something else I'm learning more about lately. You may be getting a few more nutrition-related posts from me than usual in the near future, I fear. ;)
I guess I should put in one of those disclaimer thingies, about how I haven't been compensated in any way for writing this post, the opinions expressed here are all my own, blah, blah blah....You know the drill.