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An Unhealthy Obsession With a Health App

How to know when you've crossed the line, plus 7 healthy exercise guidelines

By Suzie Mitchell

My name is Suzie, and I’m having an obsessive-compulsive relationship with a fitness app.

It started innocently enough, eight months ago, when I wanted to lose what we call in our house “those nasty five pounds.” In the past I had gone on Weight Watchers, and it worked. But when "the nasty five" crept back, just as I was becoming a bona fide techie, I figured I should update my weight loss methods and try a new technological approach. 
In the gym, on the streets and in the coffeeshops, I started noticing people wearing devices with names like Fitbit and NikeFuel. I couldn’t imagine wearing something that seemed so extreme. So I decided to download a mobile fitness app I had read about called LoseIt, which has a reasonable-sounding food and exercise database to track calories consumed and expended.

(MORE: The Fiftysomething Workout: 10 Top Fitness Apps)
Once I downloaded it, I filled in the necessary data, like height, weight and number of pounds I wanted to lose over a specific period of time. The app calculated my daily calorie allowance to lose a pound a week — and I almost choked. It was a meager 1,217 calories per day. However, exercise would consume some, so if I really worked out hard, I could up my intake by 300 calories.
I was already doing the stationary bike three days a week for 40 minutes, so I figured earning those 300 calories would be a snap. Ha! After riding for 40 minutes, the bike said I had burned 250 calories. I doubted its accuracy, so I Iooked it up in my new app.
But before it would give me a number, I had to first determine whether I was riding at a light, moderate, vigorous or extremely vigorous pace. Each category gave a different calorie count, and getting to 300 was no mean feat.
I began “stalking” thin, fit-looking people in the gym, asking what they thought “vigorous” exercise meant. Some said you shouldn’t be able to talk while working out, and others said you needed to sweat — the answers were all over the map. Then, when I asked the trainers, I got answers like “it’s different for everyone,” and “I’m not sure.” The consensus, in other words: “It depends.”
How to Really Monitor Your Heart Rate
An Iron Man competitor I know told me that to figure out my maximum heart rate and how long I was in the cardio range and how many calories I was really burning, I had to monitor my heart rate. This was turning into a junior high school science project. I Googled “heart rate zones” and found a seven-step math formula for ascertaining my heart rate for maximum calorie burn. Knowing my target rate put me on the quest for a heart monitor.
Mentally budgeting $100 for a heart monitor, I went to the local running shop. The owner told me that to get an accurate reading, I would need to wear a monitor around my chest. I considered it for a minute, but the hassle of wearing it under my clothing all day — plus the $300 price tag — pushed it out of contention.
Then I found a great app called Instant Heart Rate. All I had to do to get a reading was open the app on my smartphone and gently touch the camera lens. Once I had set my age — but not weight or anything else — it would automatically calculate my resting heart rate and maximum heart rate, then give my range for zones: warm-up (50 to 60 percent of maximum heart rate), fat burn (60 to 70 percent), cardio (70 to 80 percent) and “extreme” (80 to 90 percent).
The next day at the gym, armed with my app, I mounted the stationary bike. I checked my rate every five minutes, storing the data, logging it and comparing it with the calorie counter on the bike. Like a crazy woman, my mind and body were racing with thoughts: "Is the bike heart rate monitor right?" "Am I going fast enough?" "Am I going too fast?" "Will I pass out?" "Can I really keep my heart rate elevated?"
When my 40 minutes were up (with my heart rate stored in five-minute increments), I began converting the data from my heart rate monitor into workout categories in my LoseIt app. I wasn’t really sure if I was interpreting it correctly, which added to my perplexity.
After several weeks of testing, I concluded that the algorithms a stationary bike uses to calculate calories is based on time spent on the bike with no regard to heart rate. No matter how fast I rode or how elevated my heart rate registered, the calories the bike said I burned was within five calories of my app’s figure, which was based on the company's algorithms. Now I was really flummoxed. Was my calorie tracker correct? Was I burning more calories than the bike said or less?
My husband calls me obsessive. Just because I’m tracking my heart rate everywhere I go, trying to work in a few minutes of elevated rate here and there? Really, that’s obsessive?

(MORE: Next Avenue's Top 10 Fitness Tips of 2012)
The Bottom Line About Heart Rate and Health
I realized my husband might be right, but this whole heart rate-calorie burn thing was driving me crazy. To get some clarity, I called Dr. Lisa Tibor, an orthopedic sports medicine specialist with the Michigan Orthopedic Institute in Southfield. I asked her as directly as I could: “What is the best heart rate for maximum fitness? What's the correlation between heart rate and calorie-burn rate? What’s the ideal amount of cardio we should aim for a day? And, while I was at it, how can we tell if we’ve crossed the line between fit and fanatic?”
Like everyone else, Tibor didn’t have concrete answers to my questions. But she offered these guidelines for exercise:

  • Neglecting friends and family to exercise is unhealthy.
  • Ignoring pain that continues to get worse is fanatic.
  • Cross-training is better than doing the same exercise repeatedly as it works different muscles in different ways.
  • Warming up for cardio is very important.
  • Minimum goals for cardio should be at least 30 minutes a day four to five times a week.
  • Being active — walking the mall, gardening, housework is extremely important. 

“But what about my heart rate zones?” I asked. “Which ones should I be in for maximum workout?”
“It all depends,” Tibor said. “The stronger you get, the longer you can exercise at a cardio rate.” Then she diplomatically suggested I not be so tied to the heart rate monitor.
Had she been talking to my husband? Desiring an objective opinion, I asked a gym buddy if she thought I was a fanatic.
“No, you’re just like the rest of us: afraid that your body will fail you and you won’t be strong enough to walk through the mall on your own legs,” she said by way of consolation.
I liked that response. See, I told myself, I’m not so bad, then I checked my newly acquired Fitbit for that half-hour’s progress, trying to burn enough calories to offset a frozen yogurt treat at the end of the day.

Suzie Mitchell is the founder of Clear Writing Solutions, a marketing firm that assists IT healthcare companies targeting boomers, seniors and caregivers. She also is the president of Mitchell Research & Communications, a public relations and political consulting company and the coauthor of Growing Into Grace: Adventures in Self Discovery through Writing. Read More
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