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The New Workout Plan

Opinion | February 18, 2014

MyFitnessPal is an app that allows users to track their caloric intake and physical activity as they work towards fitness goals. The app calculates how many calories a member needs per day, based on their current weight and their desired weight. Users can input how much they exercised and MyFitnessPal will subtract however many calories were burned. But the most impactful aspect of MyFitnessPal is that users have the ability to “friend” other users, thereby giving their friends, family members, and acquaintances the ability to see every calorie that they have consumed and every push-up that they have completed. The app tries to take advantage of the common knowledge that we work out better or eat healthier when we have a team or a community behind us. MyFitnessPal brags that users who added friends lost 50% more weight than those who did not. Users with at least 10 friends lost 20.5 pounds on average.

I’m sure MyFitnessPal has helped many people stay on track and lose weight they needed to lose. But when I was in high school we called MyFitnessPal “MyAnorexiaPal.” The joke was a cruel way to deal with the reality of how the app was being used: girls would friend each other and then tacitly compete to see how few calories they could consume each day. We would all scoff at meal entries that read “8 baby carrots” but it was hard not to compare your own eating habits with those of others’, especially when every calorie was tabulated. For most of the young people I know, MyFitnessPal has been more a source of stress than a push towards health.

Several writers and publications have discussed the new “Quantified Self movement” wherein consumers are able to constantly track their pulse, sleep patterns, caloric intake, exercise, mood, temperature, caffeine consumption, et cetera. Several products such as the Fitbit and UP band, which have sensors that continually track the wearer’s movement, are popular in the Quantified Self movement. And though these products place much more emphasis on exercise and positivity than MyFitnessPal does, I think once again these products can only be detrimental to younger consumers. Middle-aged consumers may be struggling with weight gain and sedentary jobs, but younger consumers are dealing with massive amounts of insecurity.

There have been several studies, specifically one from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, that showed the more time a user spent on Facebook the lower their self-esteem was. A study from the University of Michigan showed that more Facebook time led to an increase in feelings of depression. The over-sharing we engage in online leaves us feeling jealous and inadequate. When translated to more than just pictures of parties or sunsets and into eating and exercise, I fear this over-sharing can become even more toxic.

Luckily there are apps that tap into the idea of creating a community for exercise that don’t necessitate this sort of over-sharing. The app Yog allows members to connect with runners all over the world—keeping with the notion of community—but is less invasive. With Yog, users can run “with” someone else—they plan a time, date, and distance, sync up online, and then run together. During the run, Yog provides a little bar to show how far each partner has run even if they are thousands of miles apart. The app Endomondo doesn’t provide running partners but it does provide a cheering squad—while users run or bike or hike Endomondo broadcasts their route to your friends and allows them to send pep-talk updates. As Endomondo explains in its tagline: “It’s fun, it’s social and it’s motivating.” The app RunKeeper similarly tracks the distance a user runs but puts even more value on the idea of creating a motivational community—users must pay $4.99 a month in order to have their friends see their progress. These are the sorts of communities that would appeal to a younger demographic—it feels much more like a collaborative body as opposed to a voyeuristic portal that would lead to envy and poor self-esteem.

A Tufts graduate is also taking advantage of the idea of positively creating communities in the workout world. Hameto Benkreira is the founder of Drop-in, a platform that allows users to sign up online for on-demand access to gyms and fitness classes without a long-term gym membership. Drop-in provides a discount for users who bring a friend along with them to the gym or class. Benkreira explained the logic behind this: “People work out more effectively and more frequently if they have a buddy for social accountability and support. We want to help people moving in this direction of working out more frequently. This comes from our direction of building alternatives to current gym memberships. We want to incentivize going with friends. Later on when we have a mobile app, we’ll be able to do more on the social side with things like reviews, or if you bring a friend and do so many classes we can give you points towards a new class. It’s better for users and better for us. We want people using the gym with us or not.”

Benkreira and his team also worked recently on an initiative they called the Jolt Challenge. Users signed up online and defined a health or fitness goal such as eating healthy or walking more, then were matched up with people who had similar goals. The team saw a great amount of success. “It is a bare-boned model to help people take little steps and have a support system to help them improve,” commented Benkreira. The Drop-in team plans on using this model much more frequently. Benkreira’s ideas provide a perfect example of an app that creates a community for people to improve their health without succumbing to the threat of over-sharing.

It may often feel as if working out is a Sisyphean task—every day pushing a boulder up a hill towards the vague ultimate goal of “staying in shape.” And today, in a world where apps can facilitate work, communications, and friendships, it makes sense to create communities online so no one has to push their boulder solo. But there is a big difference between having help, and constantly comparing yourself to everyone else’s boulder story.