Smartphones may cause neck and eye strain, but they can also improve your health—it’s all a question of how you use them.
Even if you don’t invest in a fitness tracker to wrap around your wrist, your phone still has apps to keep you active and well. Many of these apps have premium tiers, but you can start trying the majority of them for free, reviewing how they suit you before you invest.
Track your steps
You don’t need a fitness tracker to count the steps you take—your phone has enough sensors to measure your motion on its own. We’ve previously covered how Android’s Google Fit and iOS’s Apple Health apps can tap into this data, but they’re not the only apps that will do the job.
Feature-rich Strava (for Android and iOS) will track your runs, walks, and bike rides. The app makes it simple to track your efforts over time, set goals for what you want to achieve, and compare your progress to your friends’. You can download the app for free but for extra features—like personalized coaching tips and advanced stats—you’ll need to buy a Strava Premium subscription, which costs between $6 and $60, depending on how long you sign up for.
We also like Runtastic Steps (for Android and iOS). It’s simpler than Strava, but if you only need help hitting your daily step goal, then it does the job very well. The app presents simple charts to show your progress and keep you motivated to hit your targets each day. Runtastic Steps is free, but you can access more advanced stats and personal coaching for $5 to $60, depending on the length of your subscription.
You can even use apps that are traditionally associated with wearables. Even without a wrist-based tracker, the free Fitbit app (for Android and iOS) can still measure steps, distance traveled, calories burned, and more, thanks to a feature called Mobile Track. Fitbit gives you some really useful visualizations and also lets you track all your stats online. To allow the app to work with your phone’s sensors, just choose “No Fitbit Yet?” when you’re setting up the app.
Finally, the Misfit app (for Android and iOS) also operates with or without a wearable. Although it’s not quite as intuitive or comprehensive as Fitbit’s app, it does offer integration with Google Fit and Apple Health. Misfit automatically logs steps and distance, and it lets you manually track your sleep patterns,. The app is free unless you’d like to count your laps while swimming—that feature costs $10 and requires an extra device.
Sitting around for long periods of time is bad for your body and your overall longevity. While you shouldn’t necessarily quit your office job, getting up and walking around once in a while can reduce some of the bad health effects of all that sitting. To remind you to move, some fitness trackers will buzz your wrist, and your phone can do the same job.
The easiest option is to use your phone’s built-in stopwatch and alarm app. On an iPhone, open the Clock app, tap Timer, and set the countdown to whatever period of time you want to sit between walking sessions. On Android, everything has the same labels: Open the Clock app, tap Timer, set the time, and you’re done. In both cases, change your ringtone volume to make it loud enough to hear but not so noisy you disturb your coworkers—setting it to vibrate is a good compromise.
If that’s too rudimentary for you, seek out an app that taps into the Pomodoro Technique, a productivity method that splits your time between short breaks and longer periods of focused work. Typically, you work (and sit) for 25 minutes, then take a break (to stand and walk around) for five. However, you can adjust this timing to suit your own habits. Apple fans can download Be Focused Pro (for iOS only) for $1. In addition to the Pomodoro timer, it gives you tools for tracking time spent and progress achieved on various tasks. For those who own Android devices, Pomodoro Timer (for Android only) is free and, like Be Focused Pro, provides extra features. In this case, it gives you customizable time periods and charts that show how well you’re sticking to your routine.
Finally, we’d like to mention Stand Up! (for iOS only), a free app that specifically aims to get you moving on a regular basis. You can customize the time slots to suit your schedule, immediately view how much time you have to kill before your next break, and, if you pay $1 extra for a complete sound pack, choose from a variety of alarm sounds.
Another crucial part of staying healthy is getting enough sleep. Like counting steps, you don’t need a dedicated wearable to track your slumber. From a perch on your mattress or close to your bed, your phone can keep tabs on your sleeping patterns based on how much you’re moving and how much noise you’re making. Just be aware that even dedicated trackers aren’t always super accurate. In addition to tracking the quality of your z’s, these apps also help you fall asleep at night and wake up again in the morning.
One of the best and most comprehensive apps for this purpose is Sleep As Android (for Android only). It comes with just about every sleep-tracking and -enhancing feature you could need: Stats on the time you spend in deep and light sleep, a range of natural sounds for you to fall asleep or wake up to, even data on how much you’re snoring. Although you need to pay a one-time unlock fee of $5 to access daily sleep tracking, you can test out the app for free for 14 days.
For iOS users, Sleep Cycle (for iOS only) offers an excellent alternative. Like Sleep As Android, it monitors sounds and vibrations to judge how well you’re sleeping, and it can wait until you reach a light phase of sleep before waking you up with a gentle alarm melody. With a $40-per-year premium subscription, you get extras like online backups and the ability to measure your sleep stats over a longer period of time.
Those are our top two picks, but if they don’t work out, we also like Sleep Better (for Android and iOS). Like the other sleep apps, it sits on your mattress and judges how well you’re sleeping. Then it tracks this information over time to compile detailed stats on your light and deep sleep patterns. In a nice touch, it lets you record activities from your day, so you can see how you sleep after, say, drinking alcohol or playing sports. The app is free to use, but a $2 purchase unlocks bonus alarm sounds and lets you customize a smart wake-up window so it can pull you out of sleep during a lighter part of your cycle.
Monitor your diet
Food diaries, where you write down everything you eat, can help you lose weight. Now apps take that practice to a new level, making it easy to log diet information with a few taps. With access to online databases, these services also calculate the calorie content of your meals, showing you how healthily you’ve been eating so you can, if necessary, change your habits.
In this category of apps, MyFitnessPal (for Android and iOS) is one of our top picks. Because it includes more than 6 million entries in its food database, it will know the calorie content of almost everything you eat. You can check the calories in each of your meals and track this information over time. To make this process even more convenient, MyFitnessPal lets you scan barcodes on snacks and other food to quickly enter them into your log. In addition, it syncs up well with other health apps, like the aforementioned fitness trackers. The app itself is free, but for a more detailed breakdown of your meals’ vitamins, carbs, protein, and fats, you can sign up for a premium account. This costs $10 to $50, depending on how long you want your subscription to last.
Lose It! (for Android and iOS) offers almost as much functionality as MyFitnessPal. You can easily build up a picture of your diet, either through logging your meals manually or scanning the barcodes on the foods you’re eating, and track this data over time. It doesn’t integrate with as many apps as MyFitnessPal does, but Lose It! has a slightly more appealing interface. Again, you can sign up for a premium subscription, which will set you back $5 to $40, depending on how long you sign up for. In this app, the paid plan gives you extra stats on what you’re eating and additional advice on improving your diet.