Bye bye, baby weight: How apps helped me drop 17 pounds in July

By Sarah Lacy , written on July 30, 2013

From The News Desk

Today I went to Bustle-- despite the fact that Bryan Goldberg has told me in no uncertain terms that I'll materially skew the demographics in the "too old" direction if I do.

I read an article on our unhealthy obsession with women getting back in shape post baby. Apparently people thought Kate Middleton was "too fat" as she emerged from the hospital to show off the day-old heir to the throne. Chaos amid tabloids and women's blogs ensued. (It's times like these I'm happy I work for a tech blog…)

But it is true that when you have a baby and don't hole away somewhere on maternity leave, you feel immense pressure to get back into shape quickly. This isn't some conspiracy to keep women down. Most people in the world simply don't know you just had a baby. And the downside of being human is that it takes a while for your body to pull back into shape.

You come to loathe the phrase "You look great.... for someone who just had a baby!" Worse still are the people who ask when you are due. (I've had five of those.) Assaults on your vanity aside, it's just awkward to have to explain over and over again that you actually had the baby already.

Worse in my case: I have crammed several life events that typically cause weight gain into a few years. Two babies within 18 months, starting a company, and before that two years of travel around the world for a book. And I'm 37 years old. Metabolism isn't what it used to be...

Rather than engaging in Bustle-like angsting about whether it is society is making me feel like shit or I was making me feel like shit, I decided to do something about it, and I've partially turned to a crop of fitness apps for help. Since a lot of our readers have had the same work-life pressures of new company and/or family formation, I thought I'd share my results so far.

I should note: I don't have the advantages of time in the day to go to the gym, nor do I have the advantage of a chef or a quick metabolism. I don't have time to shop and cook fresh meals every night. This is how a real world mom of two kids under two and CEO of a growing company used the Web to get back in shape. In other words, if I can do this-- you can.

The biggest help has been something decidedly low tech: Jenny Craig. I am doing the online version which doesn't require me to go do embarrassing weigh ins or go pick up food at a strip mall location. But it's only just barely made possible by any sense of technology.

But my Jenny diet has gotten a powerful assist from the UP by Jawbone and the iPhone app MyFitnessPal.

The first way both helped was just understanding what I was doing everyday. I mistakenly thought I was pretty active before wearing the UP. I do have two young kids after all. I feel like I run around all day with my hair on fire. But during the week I was lucky to get more than 3,000 steps in and 7,000 on the weekends. The recommended goal on the UP app is 10,000.

It was pretty frustrating at first trying to find the time to get extra steps. In fact, it felt impossible given the demands on my time. So much so that I considered ditching the app.

That inclination is why I've spent most of the last few years saying fitness apps are a horrible category. I'm a big believer that you have to design for the way we are not the way we'd like to be. We don't like to be in shape. Or rather, we don't like to do the work and employ the discipline to stay in shape.

We love to plan to get in shape, which is why offline fitness is a great category: Self-help books and gyms sell to us up front. They don't care if we stick with it or not. Online fitness usually requires people staying engaged and the success that breeds word of mouth to become a business.

The problem is that a self-betterment app either works or makes you feel so horrible about yourself that you rapidly abandon it. That was my experience with Lift, unfortunately. I wince when I see that people have added me as a friend on Lift, because I know my goals are just sitting there withering away. I am just not the kind of person who can see a missed goal day-after-day. So the choice was find a way to hit 10,000 steps or quit, childish as that may seem.

Two things -- aside from my determination to get in shape-- kept me sticking with it. The first is that the UP app does a good job of giving you little nudges -- tips and hints of how you can get more steps in without a long workout. Walking around the block in the morning and the evening can get me an extra 3,000 steps and is a nice way to clear my head. Taking public transportation instead of a cab helps too. And idle alerts set every 30 minutes encourage me to get up and stretch and get a glass of water at least. The app also suggested I pace while on the phone-- something I do anyway when I'm nervous that's added a good number of steps.

The second thing was all the other people I know who are using UP. A lot of these people have schedules as busy as mine, and they were managing to hit 10,000 steps a day. It must not be impossible, I thought. Last week, I managed to hit the 10,000 goal almost everyday. That's tripling my active calorie burn, pretty much all wedged here and there into my regular day. I wouldn't have had the guidance or tracking or social accountability to do that otherwise.

I didn't love tracking food in UP because they didn't have Jenny Craig already logged in. But fortunately, we live in a glorious world of open APIs. I started tracking what I was eating in MyFitnessPal-- a horribly designed site that's nowhere near as pretty as UP. But I found it better at tracking food, particularly because all the Jenny Craig food is already loaded in. My nanny is trying to lose weight with me, and we're doing all three of these tools together. The apps help us support one another even when we're not in the same place.

So far, the results have been good. I am two pounds away from the 150s, and I haven't seen them since my early 30s. In another ten pounds I will have lost a whopping fifty pounds since the peak of my second pregnancy. All the weight from both kids, starting Pando, traveling the world, and writing my second book: GONE.

That's amazing. I feel wonderful, and it's dramatically impacted my mood. I've also saved a lot of money by not eating out and not drinking. I'm a more considerate person too, because I keep offering to run out and get things to up my steps. My team almost fell over last week when I offered to go pick up sandwiches for everyone.

Despite the success, there's a lot I would change. Neither UP nor MyFitnessPal have a setting for a nursing mom. That's pretty material as you burn an extra 600 calories a day on average-- which greatly skews any math on recommended intake and output of calories. For instance, MyFitnessPal's recommendations of what I could weigh in five weeks if I kept the current intake and steps up isn't remotely helpful.

And while it's nice that UP links up with sites like MyFitnessPal, the syncing is bizarre. Sometimes my diet syncs, sometimes it does not. It's inconsistent enough, I might try barcoding all my food into UP even though Jenny isn't in there, just to have it all in one place.

On both, it's still really hard to track food. You can use the iPhone's camera to scan a barcode, but that encourages just eating packaged food. I don't totally know how you solve this problem, but someone should try harder. I'm sick of listing every ingredient in a salad.

And most annoying of all, UP doesn't measure steps if I'm pushing a stroller. According to the company, in an effort to make sure steps aren't counted if you merely push the bracelet across the table, it records more ways of movement than a typical pedometer, which only measures forward thrust. But somehow it's so sophisticated that I can't actually use it to measure steps when my arms are in a certain artificially still position. I loop it on my belt instead-- when I remember-- and have dropped it several times, forcing me to double back and search the streets of the Mission for it. New parents seem like an obvious use case to get in shape and measure sleep. This should be fixed.

A lot of people have asked me why I picked UP and whether I checked out the Nike Fuel or Fitbit too. I didn't. I just like Hosian Rahman, Jawbone's CEO, so I tried the UP first. But I do think the UP bracelets look better than the others, have a better palate of colors, and the battery life is fantastic. It's hard to remember to charge more frequently than once a week.

I like the UP app better too-- although I've only seen the other apps, I haven't really used them day in and day out. Judging at how many of my friends are using UP, I made a good choice. For a good articulation of the differences, check out this recent post on GigaOM. (Although my experience was different since I had many, many friends on the UP app.)

I'm not yet ready to admit that these apps-- even the ones I liked-- are going to become large businesses. Jawbone is nicely hedged since it also sells other things, but UP is an important enough product they'll continue to invest in it. MyFitnessPal has been wise to integrate with slicker platforms, but it needs a major design overhaul if it wants to grow. And everyone needs to make food-logging easier.

But my long-time naysaying about fitness apps aside, I'm glad entrepreneurs thought there was a big enough opportunity to build them. They can't provide determination and willpower for you, but if you can muster it up, they certainly make you feel less alone and help you track successes beyond those annoying numbers on the scale.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]