Why Mobile Weight Loss Apps Suck More Than a Vacuum

Ryan Dube 26-05-2016

Once you start getting older, it’s a whole lot harder to keep the weight off, so wouldn’t it be nice if there were smartphone weight loss apps that actually worked? Yeah, good luck with that.


Over the last five years, I’ve tested at least a dozen different apps on my Android phone to help manage my weight and my health The 7 Best Body Weight Exercise Apps for Fitness Anywhere You can get a great workout with just your body and your phone. These Android and iPhone apps help you exercise anywhere. Read More . Over those five years, I’ve learned one important lesson: Weight loss apps suck.

There are apps out there that’ll help you track the calories you eat, log your weight-lifting sessions, track your runs, measure how many steps you take during the day, and a whole lot more. All of them do what they promise, except make you lose weight Lose More Weight Faster With The Help Of These Communities The fact is, losing weight is never going to be easy. No matter what method you try to use there is a simple formula: eat less, burn more. There is a million ways to carry... Read More . For that — you’re gonna need more than an app.

Follow along, and I’ll show you why.

Calorie Counting Apps are Annoying

Counting calories really seems like one of the most promising plans for losing weight, doesn’t it? I mean, science and math pretty much line up with the whole theory — expend more energy than you consume and voila, your body burns fat to make up the difference.

It’s great in principle, but when you start trying to stick to tracking your caloric intake every day, it can get mighty annoying very fast. This was true even with the app that I found the easiest to use — MyFitnessPal.



Look, I loved everything about the MyFitnessPal MyFitnessPal Calorie Counter - The Best Weight Loss App On The iPhone Everyone knows that losing weight is difficult. It requires a certain level of commitment that not everyone is prepared for. However, when you meet those weight loss goals, it is one of the most satisfying... Read More . I loved that it showed you your net remaining calories every day, which meant that when I worked out and burned 500 calories at the gym, I could have bread with my supper and not feel guilty about it.

The search feature, which you can see on the right in the image above, is also chock-full of both generic and branded foods, so you’re almost always guaranteed to find the food that you’re looking for.

But here’s where it becomes a major pain in the backside.

  • Searching for individual parts of a meal can take way too long — oatmeal, boiled egg, orange juice, etc.
  • It’s never entirely accurate; a large apple has more calories than a small. A salad may have more calories than you think when you toss nuts into it.
  • Remembering to log every single meal gets really old, really fast.

You know what would be really cool? An app where you could just take a picture of the food and it would recognize the food you’re eating, calculate the caloric intake, and log it all at once. Now that would be useful. Right now, that option just doesn’t exist.

Here’s a shocking revelation: Instead of counting every calorie to make sure you don’t overeat, how about just not overeating How To Lose Weight...Fast - The Best Web Resources For Fasting Diets The latest craze in the world of dieting is intermittent fasting. We pull together some of the best resources online related to this popular method for losing weight and getting healthier. Read More ? Eating smaller portions of high quality, natural protein, carbs and greens? A little common sense and self-control can go a long way, it takes a lot less time out of your day, and it’s a lot less aggravating than constantly pulling out your phone at every meal.

P.S.: Calorie counting did result in short term weight loss for me, of about 10 pounds in a couple of months. However, I think this was more from the energy expended getting frustrated using the app at every meal. I tried simply eating smaller portions and exercising, without using the app, and lost just as much weight in the same timeframe.

Step-Tracking Apps Don’t Really Do Anything

Here’s another thing that many people first do when they want to get serious about “getting in shape”. They start counting their steps. They count them when they walk from the parking lot to their desk. They count them when they walk to the cafeteria for lunch. Then count them while they’re on the treadmill Step Off The Treadmill - 8 Reasons Not To Upgrade Your OS Read More after work.


Did you hit 10,000 steps? You did? Good for you!


Or not.

I mean, so you happened to walk 10,000 steps. Does wearing a Fitbit that logs every step, or using the Samsung Health app on your Android phone really make a difference? Does it really inspire you to get up and take a walk around the block during lunch?


For me, it never did. Sure, I was disappointed when I laid down in bed at night and saw that I’d only walked just under 3,000 steps that day. But when you spend nearly 8 hours sitting at a desk writing code, what do you expect? Does the daily disappointment of seeing well under 10,000 steps every day inspire more action? Does it inspire more frequent gym visits?

Not really. Disappointment usually creates disillusionment, and drives people to quit trying. How about instead of counting steps, just set an appointment on your calendar Reminders Make Google Calendar an Incredible To-Do List Do you maintain a to-do list and a separate calendar? It introduces friction because tasks and scheduling are interdependent. Google now solved this by introducing Reminders to Google Calendar on Android. Read More to take a walk at lunch, and to go to the gym after work. Problem solved, and you’ve just saved $150 from not having to buy a Fitbit.

Weight Lifting Log Apps Are a Nuisance

Getting the motivation to actually go to the gym is hard enough, and there are few apps that’ll actually help you with that part. A calendar reminder The 9 Best Google Calendar Alternatives for Time Management When you are busy and need to manage your time better, one of these calendars might be the answer for you. Read More (or several) is probably the best you can do, but when you’re actually at the gym, there are all sorts of apps out there that promise to help you keep track of your workout routines.

MyFitnessPal has a strength training logging feature that lets you choose the exercise you’ve done, as well as how many sets, repetitions per set, and how much weight you lifted.


This is fine if you only care about keeping a record of your specific workout details that day, but why didn’t MyFitnessPal include the estimated calorie burn for that exercise? After all, every cardio routine that you can select from in the app gives you the estimated calorie burn for that activity. The strength training option doesn’t. I don’t get it!


Here’s a really stupid way that I hacked the app so that I could just log how many estimated calories that I burned during my strength training routine. I Googled the estimated calorie burn that someone of my age and weight would expend during roughly 30 minutes of weight lifting.

Then I created a custom “cardio” item called “Weight Training” with that estimated calorie burn for every 30 minutes. It’s a silly way to track the calorie burn, but it worked.

The thing is, it didn’t really boost my weight training sessions, for all of the following reasons.

  • It’s really annoying to keep taking out the smartphone and typing on it after every single exercise.
  • With many apps, it’s not easy to see the last time you did the same exercise and what you’re weight was.
  • Using an app to log your reps extends your time spent in the gym.
  • The odds of dropping or crushing your smartphone in the gym are pretty high.

I’ve tried using 2 or 3 apps to log my workouts Stay Fit: The 5 Best Quick Workout Apps For Android Need to find the time to exercise? These apps can help you with only a few minutes of your day. Read More , and inevitably I get sick of messing around with my smartphone in the gym and just start leaving my smartphone in the locker where it belongs. Want to keep track of your strength training workouts? You really can’t go wrong with good old fashioned pen and paper. Honestly.

Run-Logging Apps Are Impractical

It would be silly not to cover run logging apps as part of this article, because this is probably one of the most commonly used features of most fitness apps out there.

Google Fit is honestly probably one of the simplest apps Google Fit Review: Will This App Make You Healthier? Google's entry into the smartphone health craze is here: Google Fit. Let's take a look at what makes it unique and how it stacks up against the competition. Read More to use for logging runs. Whether you’re running, walking, hiking, or whatever, you just select the activity you’re doing, hit start, and the app will log the path of  your entire workout. Simple.


There are also some health apps that come with fitness hardware, like Jabra’s Bluetooth headphones, which sync with the Jabra Sport app. This is actually a pretty good app to log your runs because there’s an easy history page to see your past workouts and what kind of progress you’re making over time.


UnderArmour, the maker of MyFitnessPal, also offers an app specifically for logging runs called MapMyRun. This one was actually one of my favorites at one point just because the logging page was really cool, with a realtime map, current distance, and even a “coaching” feature where you can work with a live coach if you’re willing to upgrade to the paid version.


So, with all of these really cool apps, you would think that I’m promoting using a run-logging app at least, right? Well, not quite. This is another area where I found using a smartphone during a workout to be a major PITA (if you don’t known what that means, ask me in the comments).

Why is it annoying? Check out all the reasons:

  • Running clothes rarely have a good place to stash a phone that isn’t completely uncomfortable during your run.
  • You could use an armband to strap your phone to you, but that’s equally awkward and annoying.
  • Sweat and smartphones don’t mix.
  • Sweaty fingers messing around with a smartphone is a recipe for disaster.
  • When you run, you should be free and unencumbered by technology.

Sure, having music during your run is kind of a necessity — at least it is for me. But there are lots of really tiny clip-on music players Should You Still Buy an MP3 Player? Here are the pros and cons of using MP3 players and help you decide whether it's worth buying an MP3 player these days. Read More you can buy that clip tightly onto your running outfit without feeling like it’s even there. Leave the smartphone home and let yourself run free.

Most Weight Loss Apps Are Just Bad

Why am I so against health apps? At least in my experience, they just don’t help. Yes, this is unscientific and anecdotal, but the truth is exercise is hard enough as it is without having to fumble around with a smartphone the whole time.

Truth be told, I did find some success using the apps — for example, whenever I take the time to log calories with MyFitnessPal, I’ve definitely lost weight. The proof is in the chart.


That first big weight drop was when I decided to use the app religiously to log every single meal. I’m not sure if it’s just something about being held accountable for what goes into my mouth, but it really worked.

However, that second weight-loss drop was accomplished without that app. It was accomplished by setting up a disciplined and planned approach to meals — scheduling a small meal every 2 to 3 hours, and hitting the gym after work every day.

What it boils down to is this — health and fitness can be accomplished 5 Ways to Stay Healthy and Active Using Your Android Phone Eating right and exercising is hard -- but your Android phone can make it all a bit easier. Read More with discipline. Maybe you think you need an app on your phone to remain disciplined, but the truth is you probably have it within yourself already to be that disciplined without having to be tied to your smartphone during every single workout.

My advice? Free yourself from technology when you’re focused on your body. Be in the moment, and enjoy it. Because honestly, adding anything else to the experience is nothing more than noise. You don’t need it.

What’s your experience using weight loss apps? Do you like them? Do you find them as annoying as I do? Share your own experiences in the comments section below!

Image Credit: exhausted with exercising by imtmphoto via Shutterstock

Related topics: Fitness, Health.

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  1. Schvenn
    May 10, 2017 at 12:49 am

    From the overwhelmingly negative responses you've received to this article, it appears that the odds are stacked against you. I and millions of others can attest to the fact that they do work, if you use them and follow them, properly. The point is that these apps are designed to teach you. There is a learning curve. You have to realize that your current pattern is what lead to your weight problem and you need to learn how and where to adjust. If you truly used the fitness and health apps properly, they would help you with that learning curve and you would lose weight as millions of people have already proven.

    My wife and I are on a very strict diet now that she is in renal failure and I have both high cholesterol and high blood pressure. So, changing our lifestyle wasn't just a good idea, it was necessary and there is no possible way we could do it without a nutrition app. She needs to keep her sodium under 2000/day, preferably under 1500, her protein under 68g and potassium and phosphate are also critical measurements. This would be virtually impossible to accomplish without having the aid of a smart phone and a Lose It! or one of its competitors.

    In two months, we have both lost over 20 pounds. We've learned more about healthy eating and what to avoid than we ever realized before and my blood pressure has dropped more than 13 points for both measurements, in that time. My resting pulse rate is down more than 20BPM, despite being an avid runner, for many years and while I don't have my cholesterol measurements back from my latest blood test, but I'm sure those are lower, as well. So, I am living proof that your assessment is inaccurate.

    I believe ML's response was the best and is actually what I have planned to do, all the way along. Once I'm comfortable with my weight and what I need to do, I will only check in from time to time, to ensure I'm on track, "calibrated" as it were. That is where the real strength of these tools are. You use them and learn. You benefit, learn, repeat. Eventually, you hopefully won't need them any longer.

  2. Avi
    August 28, 2016 at 2:50 pm

    Oh so true. But there are two exceptions: First, I use my Fitbit to track sleep. True, I don't entirely trust its sleep-logging, but I am becoming motivated to change my behavior and get more sleep.

    The other exception is a connected weight. Seeing a little decrease through my Withings dashboard does wonder to my motivation.

  3. Johnny Lucid
    May 26, 2016 at 11:52 pm

    Typical technophile bilge. There are still many things in life that one's brain and self-discpline are necessary for success, for getting stuff done. MyFitnesPal is great as a food and exercise diary, no more no less. IF you're expecting a fully immersive experience, I pity you.

    • Ryan Dube
      May 27, 2016 at 2:55 am

      Gosh no - not a fully immersive experience. I think the real realization for me was that technology was actually having the opposite effect - it was getting in my way of actually concentrating on self-discipline and good old human grit. That's just me though - I think others may feel the same way, but everyone is different. If such apps work for you, by all means use them!

  4. ML
    May 26, 2016 at 5:40 pm

    I used my FitBit and MyFitnessPal daily to lose about 20 pounds. 80 percent of the time I'm eating the same meals or doing the same exercises. After a couple of months I found that I had an intuitive feel for how many calories I was eating or burning off through exercise and didn't need these tools on a daily basis.

    Now I just use them for a few days a month just to 'calibrate' myself again. I've kept the weight off.

    I agree that you can get too granular with some of these apps/processes. You can spend too much time doing data entry to the point where it's no fun. I didn't get too caught up with capturing every bit of data... it's okay to ballpark it as long as you're moving the right direction of losing weight.

    • Ryan Dube
      May 27, 2016 at 2:53 am

      Wow, nice work ML. 20 pounds is nothing to shake a stick at - that's a great accomplishment.

  5. Anonymous
    May 26, 2016 at 3:29 pm

    "Free yourself from technology when you’re focused on your body. Be in the moment, and enjoy it. Because honestly, adding anything else to the experience is nothing more than noise. You don’t need it."

    This is not the conclusion of a nuanced and reflexive article, it's an absurd reduction. This whole piece is full of come-on-guys-it's-not-so-hard types of proclamations like, "Instead of counting every calorie to make sure you don’t overeat, how about just not overeating?". Yeah it's that simple! Just do everything right like the article I linked and you're fine.

    A quality article would be about how these technologies offer tools to set and monitor goals as part of a personal shift towards better discipline and lifestyle choices but to not fall into the trap of thinking that the tech itself is going to do the work for you which the author certainly does. The complaints of this article boil down to "These tools aren't perfect, so you shouldn't use them".

    • Ryan Dube
      May 27, 2016 at 2:52 am

      I can't disagree with that. I definitely fell into the trap of trying to let the apps do the hard work for me. If the apps do work for you (or anyone else reading this) then by all means use them! I guess for me, I had to learn to stop being lazy (because I can be quite lazy when it comes to self-discipline) and just develop the grit and habit to get it done. As you correctly point out, apps won't do that for me -- but it's true that for some people they might. We're all very different.