I was about 3 miles into the Litchfield Hills Road Race when I came to the conclusion that I really had no business at all being there. It was 86F in the burning sun, I had just twisted my ankle, and I was running so slow that people walking the course were passing me. And I still had 4 miles to go.
It should come as no surprise that many of the free apps in the Android market are ineptly named -- after all, these are programmers doing their thing, not marketeers. Expecting a programmer to come up with a sexy title is a little bit like having a chiropractic doctor create a drug name. "Sideffecta" is the first one that comes to my mind, which is probably why SmithKlineBeechamKilla hasn't come around knocking on my door with money in hand.
I don't know where the name comes from (somebody's android dog, maybe?) but just ignore that. This is the best app a gym rat could ask for.
Maybe a little background is in order. Back in the stone ages, I spent my summers working for the AMC Trail Crew, in the high peaks of the White Mountains. It was intense physical labor, consisting of cutting trees with axes, rolling multi-ton rocks up and down jagged slopes, and carrying ridiculously heavy loads of tools, supplies and food up steep mountain trails. And if you spent your winters as a student of the liberal and hard sciences, as I did, that first week of summer could be a real bear. So I took it upon myself to start keeping in shape during the off season.
Now this was long before gyms became the cheery, chic places they are now. At the university I attended, the weight room was in the corner of the basement of the fieldhouse, and was occupied by two groups -- the football team, and the body-builders. It smelled like stale sweat socks, or worse if somebody's lunch got the better of them in the middle of some squats, had one Nautilus machine and a bevy of free weights, bars and benches. No juice bars, no stereo, no carpeting, just a fan to blow around the stale air.
I knew little about lifting. All I knew is that I needed to be stronger than I ever had been before by the time spring rolled around. While the football squad was less than welcoming, the bodybuilders, who worked out in the odd times that I had available, were a pretty friendly crowd. They took me under their wing, and taught me a lot about lifting, in that time-honored personal transmission of tradecraft that occurred before the internet. And though some of them were assuredly juicing, I was never part of that inner circle in which the "true knowledge" was imparted.
So I learned -- the good techniques as well as the bad -- and gradually developed an addiction to the art of being strong, an addiction which has never really left me. One of the techniques that I learned was that you couldn't evaluate your progress unless you wrote it down. And as you altered your routines to combat your weaknesses, as a general might alter his troop strategy, you were lost unless you had a map of where you had been. After a while, I began keeping a small spiral-bound notebook in my gym bag in which I charted my progress. I still have a few of those notebooks tucked away up in the attic. Last time I looked at one, I could see where the ink had run from my sweat dripping on them, and the thing still smelled like that poorly-ventilated room with a wall of mirrors.
Fast-forward to the next century. I have a dedicated workout room in my house, equipped with weights, which sees heavy use in the winter as my long cycling trips become warm-weather memories. In the corner sits a stool with a 3-ring notebook, pages full of workout information -- weight, sets, reps, rest times -- the unrefined data documenting what is no longer my preparation for a season's high-altitude adventures, but is instead my fight against age and encroaching debility (not to mention my number one prevention strategy against infection, cancer and heart disease).
Until a couple of months ago, when I stumbled onto Jefit in the Android Marketplace (you were beginning to wonder if I was ever going to get around to actually reviewing the application, weren't you?). After looking over many of the purported apps for tracking exercise, none of them come close to doing as good a job as Jefit.
The opening screen allows you to define multiple routines, and assign them to particular days. You can set up a profile with measurements from weight to bicipital circumference. There are a wealth of pre-defined exercises, with visual triggers, and even animated demonstrations. You can also define your own, for those of us who have found, err, novel ways of exercising, or who employ some of the Naked Warrior training techniques which have gained popularity with the rise of the UFC.
You can also add your one rep max data, which will be tracked automatically. After setting up your routines, use is simple. You do the exercise, then use the drop down values on the screen to input weight and rep. Hit the "Save and Time" button, and your data will be logged and the timer set for your next exercise. The input fields default to your last used value, on the assumption (in my case, all-too-frequently correct) that you haven't thrown another plate on for this set. If you are proceeding to another exercise, the timer screen will tell you what it is and how much you lifted last time, so you can set up your equipment during the rest period.
When you've finished your routine, the app tells you "Congratulations" -- always a nice thing to hear, even if it is coming from your smartphone -- and gives you the option of reviewing your log or exiting.
And that's it. Jefit offers a clean, simple interface that doesn't take too much thought when your brain is awash in that pecular combination of enkephalins and Substance P that are the hallmark of a good weight-training session, and your hand is trembling too much to accomplish fine coordination skills. The app will soon have a website to which you can upload your data and track it more thoroughly, in much the same way that my previous winner, Endomondo does.
In any event, it is the perfect next-generation replacement for my old spiral-bound notebooks, and keeps my workouts incredibly productive. What more could an aging gym rat ask for?
When the Verizon cellphone account headed for expiration, I decided to (a) look for a better deal, and (b) do some serious upgrading. My old folder did its job and did it well, but had gone a wee bit hinky on me over the past few months, randomly shutting down, making phone calls on its own, occasionally beeping uncontrollably, and generally acting like a patron of the Pig & Whistle at last call on a Saturday evening. Being a fan of Open Systems software, I was naturally drawn to phones running the Android operating system, and the increasingly large ecosystem of apps surrounding it. So I ended up with a Samsung I897 smartphone. And, of course, immediately began looking at the 1.3 gazillion health and fitness apps for it.
Most of them, unsurprisingly, are less than impressive, and fall into one of several categories. There are the Body Mass Index calculators, calorie counters, weight loss trackers, and celebrity fitness apps. The first group does nothing more than a pencil and paper, hand calculator or a smart digital scale can do; the second group has utility if all you want to do is reduce input, not recalibrate your diet for a healthy intake; and the only appeal of the final group is to assure you that "YES, YOU CAN LOOK LIKE HER," or alternatively, "YES, YOU CAN GET HER," depending on your gender and orientation.
But after slogging my way through the swampland, I found what I consider to be the three Essential Health Apps. They are available for both Android and iPhone platforms, and all three of these applications have the twin advantages of Doing Something Useful and Doing What They Say They Can Do. Neither of these attributes should be taken for granted in the world of applications software.
Two of these apps are for fitness, and the third is for nutrition. All three are free. And if you are engaged in any level of healthy activities, I encourage you to download them and employ them.
The app we will review today is, to my mind, the best reason for getting a smartphone. Health App #1: Endomondo
Endomondo is an application for cyclists, runners, bladers, skiers and walkers. Like all of the other apps in this category, it uses the phone's built-in gps to track your location, and will report your speed, distance traveled, and average speed as well as other assorted data, both visually and verbally. You can look at a screen that resembles the cyclocomputer on your bicycle, or follow your progress on a map. And at user-set times, Endomondo will verbally give you your performance data. All of these are typical of the breed. However, Endomondo goes a notch higher than the competition in several respects.
First of all, Endomondo's use of the gps is far better than any of the other apps in this category that I tried (I tested the top 6.) I live in an area where gps reception is dicey. I've had $500 gps units sit in front of my house for minutes trying to get a fix on its location, only to report failure and retire from the field.
Endomondo, it seems, can variably adjust its filters on the fly to accept weak-signal situations. As soon as I punch the start button, Endomondo is ready to ride, while others -- notably SportsTracker, SportyPal, and CardioTrainer -- took several minutes to acquire a position fix. And My Tracks, allegedly a premier program, never did get a location fix over the course of a 25 mile ride.
Even with the acceptance of lower-level gps signals, Endomondo's accuracy did not notably suffer. In 25 and 30 mile rides, the app was within .05 miles accurate, as compared to a cyclocomputer which had been previously calibrated against a measured 100-mile distance, and the Endomondo distance measurement fell within the range of error of the calibrated device.
In comparison, CardioTrainer gave me an extra 5 miles over a 25-mile distance, something for which I was grateful but hesitant to accept, even though the CardioTrainer error boosted my average speed to the minor diety level.
SportsTracker can occasionally get a fix, and once fixed, would track with admirable accuracy. But before it would let you take off, you had to add a name and description to your ride. And since my rides are usually unremarkable, this feature made little sense. After all, how many times can you type in "milk run"?
SportyPal's interface was unsuitable for low-signal conditions. Until the gps would initialize, it would seize, leaving me sitting in the driveway waiting for the software to get ready. And that's just not an option in my world.
In comparison, I liked Endomondo's no-muss, no-fuss startup. You just picked your activity (surprisingly enough, the list includes "transport cycling" as an option, which pleased me to no end), pressed the "Start" button, then started. Clean and simple.
Endomondo also has the ability to gather heart rate data from a bluetooth-equipped sensor, which it will incorporate into your ride data.
At the end of your activity, you press "Stop," and all of your data is automatically uploaded to your online Endomondo account.
Online, you can look at your history, your maps, graphs of your ride data in a few different formats; but best of all, you can interact with friends. There are activity challenges constantly going on, and if you set up your phone app to do so, you can allow your friends to track you online in real time. Your friends can help you along by sending freeform text messages via endomondo, which are then read to you by the phone's text-to-speech engine. Imagine how much fun it can be, as you struggle up some desperate incline, to hear your best friend cheering you on with such encouraging phrases as "speed it up, lard butt!" or "enjoying your ice cream stop, pal?"
(Such exhortations can be made somewhat more enjoyable, I found, by equipping your phone's text-to-speech engine with a sexy British accent, making your buddy's ribbing much more pleasant.)
Although some may not like them, the social networking features of Endomondo are definitely a selling point for me. Misery always loves company. So that, plus the easy user interface and the weak-signal GPS performance make this my Number 1 health app.
NEXT UP: We take the Android to the gym and let it show its muscle.
Dr. Avery Jenkins is a chiropractic physician specializing in the treatment of people with chronic disorders. He can be reached at email@example.com or by calling 860-567-5727.