Saturday, January 29, 2011

Better Fitness...on your Phone!

The use of smart phones nowadays is definitely becoming commonplace, especially with major providers offering progressively lower prices, making them very affordable for the general public. And what’s most fun about smart phones? Well apps of course! But do any of these apps have a notable impact on your health? Apps offering tips on how to improve health may not be enough as we all know that knowledge may not enough to cause behavioural change (1). For this reason, apps looking to improve fitness and health must offer more services than throwing tips at its users.  And how useful are these apps for already fit individuals? What do they offer?

I stumbled across a fitness app developed by Adidas called the miCoach. What I thought was so distinctive about this app was how much content was offered for a free app. Users create an account on the app and enter preferred units, age and weight. It offers an introductory fitness test to assess fitness level as well as the “Free Workout” mode that helps calculate kcals spent while running, walking, biking or Nordic skiing. Preprogrammed workouts also include relative intensity levels that you can adjust to, all being delivered to you by the voice of some of your favourite athletes. If exercising outside, the app offers maps by using the phone’s GPS capabilities. Intensity, calories spent, distance and duration are all recorded and kept on record. You could then upload these to your miCoach account to track your workouts either online or on your phone. The miCoach site (2) offers fitness tips as well as a forum to help with other users regarding issues/solutions, tips on usage and other useful tidbits. The forums essentially create a supportive environment for the miCoach user, which makes it different from some of the lesser fitness apps.
For the individual just starting their fitness journey, the app offers guidance and data on different modes of exercise. The site offers a way to track your progress and the forums offer an encouraging environment to keep you motivated. Being able to visually see the graphical representation of your previous workouts may serve as feedback which may help motivate them according to McClellands achievement motivation theory and Hackman and Oldham’s job characteristics theory (3). Furthermore, the fact that its a smart phone app makes it somewhat fun, especially since you can customize the voice of your app. Missed a workout? That’s ok! The app includes a way to keep you accountable by letting you reschedule workouts. Because those who own smart phones ALWAYS have it with them (or at least I do), it enables users to take on a higher level of fitness by incorporating a convenience factor to fitness improvement.

For more experienced people, the forums may not be as useful since they may already have a good level of self efficacy but the route mapping help them explore new running/biking routes to keep workouts interesting. Workout tracking provides visual feedback on their progress which can help in fitness maintenance or tracking progress on advanced fitness goals.

The miCoach app is an example of how technology is trying to make better fitness more available to the public. Not saying its a replacement for personal trainers but who has the money to hire a running coach for all their workouts? The app attempts to make exercise assessable, convenient, interesting and fun and thus, to an extent, enabling the individual to improve their health. Other examples of mobile technology used to improve health include its use to improve immunization procedures (4) and connecting the elderly to available healthcare (5).

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Healthy Hot Pot om nom nom

     Many Asian cuisines have been given a negative image due to their high sodium content, highly processed nature and general greasiness. Moreover, when you think about Asian eats in a dining or communal eating setting, the images that surface aren't much better. Perhaps deep fried chicken nuggets with your bubble tea, which is high in saturated fat, simple refined sugars and low in fiber. Or maybe the take-out favourite sweet and sour pork, battered and deep fried (sometimes refried) pork nuggets drenched in a sugary and salty goop. Hot pot is an Asian dining tradition that is familiar to foodies but has often been slammed for containing highly processed food, fatty meats all cooked in a sodium rich broth. Anyone familiar with the Japanese variety (sukiyaki) is familiar with the inch thick layer of grease floating in their pot after the meal is complete. So is healthy communal Asian dining possible? And what other health benefits does it bring aside from the nutritional improvements?
     For those who are unfamiliar, a hot pot meal consists of a large communal pot of broth placed in the middle of the table atop a burner, where various food items are boiled and eaten. People at the table take turns cooking and serving each other throughout the meal. Many eateries offer this type of hot pot but others also offer tables where each individual gets their own cooking vessel. However an alternative that I would suggests is preparing the hot pot meal at home. Although a bit more time consuming, this at-home dining experience offers a rich sense of community with whomever you share your meal with and also gives near complete control of the nutritional content of your food.
On a nutritional standpoint, changes can be made to the meal to make it much healthier than it would be at an eatery. Choosing leaner cuts of meat to cook cuts down the saturated fat that is consumed. Many Asian markets offer various kinds of meat all sliced paper thin for hot pot and one can easily find a leaner cut with less marbling. Meat, being the most expensive component of the meal, can be reduced to a reasonable amount, allowing a portion of the protein content to come from non animal sources like soft/frozen tofu, tofu patties or tofu skin. The various fish balls that accompany the meats can be purchased by the chef, who can read the food labels to make sure there are good quality ingredients going into the fish balls, like actual fish meat and not some imitation protein. Alternatively, whole fish fillets and other lean seafood can be substituted altogether. Vegetable selection at most hot pot restaurants are limited to cabbage and spinach.  By having hot pot at home, you could select vegetables that your friends/family enjoy, and have a larger variety, offering a wider range of nutrients in your meal. The starch in hot pot often comes from yams or taro, which can be deep fried prior to serving in restaurants, adding to the greasiness. Naturally this cumbersome step can be skipped at home, much to the benefit of the diners' health. Finally, the very salty mystery broth that you cook your food in can be controlled at home. You can control the sodium content and leave out preservatives and flavour enhancers so you know exactly what you're cooking your food in. Often, the soup is drank in the end and takes on the flavours of the food you cook in it so it doesn't need to be overly seasoned to begin with, since the final product is nonetheless savoury and complex. These minor changes reduce the amount of saturated fat and sodium content as well as providing a wider range of nutrients the meal has to offer. Ultimately, it is more enjoyable because food selection is not limited by a menu but by the supermarket you shop at. These all contribute to improved nutritional/physical health.

     From a non-nutritional standpoint, the act of communally shopping, preparing and eating the food provides a sense of community and belonging with those around you. A group of friends could spend and afternoon shopping for their dinner and spend their evening preparing the meal together. Because your are spending time with friends or family towards a common goal, this appeals to the social and emotional aspect of health. Perhaps, depending on the nature of the conversations you have, even the intellectual aspect is touched upon. This is further emphasized at the table where everyone takes turns cooking and serving the food to each other. This act of communal eating provides a strong sense of community and family, bringing you closer to your fellow diners at a fraction of the cost it would at a hot pot eatery.

     So next time you and your friends are planning dinner together, consider eating in and preparing some healthy hot pot. With a few tweaks to the ingredient selection, your meal becomes much more nutritious and offers a rich communal dining experience that everyone is bound to enjoy.

PS: Ingredients used in this particular hotpot include: Lean beef, various fish balls, frozen tofu, tofu puffs, shrimp, enoki mushrooms, shitake mushrooms, some other fungi i dont know the name of, cabbage, pea shoots and udon noodles cooked in a light chicken broth.

Photos courtesy of Tessa Tham