By Sindya N. Bhanoo
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
It was a hot, air-conditioner-worthy day last summer when Chester Marl came home from the hospital. The newborn slept remarkably well through the night.
Once the weather cooled off, his parents stopped running the air conditioner in their Seattle home. Chester bawled for nights at a time.
His parents soon realized he was missing the soothing hum of the machinery.
His father, Brett Marl, who uses the popular iPhone, went to the iTunes Web site in search of a solution and found White Noise.
For 99 cents, the iPhone application offers 40 sounds that aim to soothe you: waves crashing, crickets chirping -- even an air conditioner humming.
For the next four months, the infant slept with his father's iPhone in his crib and White Noise tuned to "air conditioner." The monotonous buzz kept the baby sleeping soundly and his parents happy.
"It's a cool app," Marl said. "It doesn't really do a whole lot, but it was of tremendous value to us."
One of the highlights of having an iPhone, Marl and other users will tell you, is the plethora of applications you can download. Independent developers have created thousands of applications that offer games, music, maps and access to news and weather updates.
Other smartphones, like the BlackBerry and T-Mobile G1, also have applications, but the iTunes online storefront, which lets independent developers sell applications for the iPhone, has resulted in more than 15,000 choices and more than 500 million downloads.
Health care and fitness makes up an entire category, with 745 options that range from the gimmicky to the useful.
They include custom diaries, calorie counters (that track what you eat), pedometers (that track your every footstep) and period trackers (yes, they track your monthly period). There are also apps to track your smoking habit, your blood pressure and your contractions at the end of pregnancy.
Added bonus: There's no commitment involved. Users say they often try apps a few times and then never use them again. Many cost 99 cents, some are even free; at those prices, it's easy come, easy go.
"The key thing to remember about all these things is you can't iPhone your way to your fitness," said Ziv Haskal, an iPhone user and the chief of vascular and interventional radiology at University of Maryland Medical Center. "Unless what you want is really muscular fingers."
One of the most popular fitness applications is iFitness, which for $1.99 offers pictures of hundreds of exercises and lets you log workout information.
Haskal says the portability and functionality of the phone offers many benefits. "If something like iFitness logs information and prods you, then that's good, positive reinforcement," Haskal said. "But looking at pictures won't make you fit."
A free application called Live-strong lets you log your daily workouts and track how many calories you are burning.
It also allows you to log the food you eat every day. Type in "granola," "milk" and "orange," and it instantly logs the calories, making estimates for quantities (a cup of granola, a cup of milk, one orange). It can also pull calorie information for items on popular restaurant menus.
Joseph Misiti, a 25-year-old software engineer who lives in the District, has uses Livestrong to help him count calories, and it has changed his eating habits.
"It's been helpful but depressing," he said. "It's pretty easy to start consuming 4,000 calories without realizing it if you're going out to eat and drinking."
As his New Year's resolution, Misiti gave up his favorite restaurant.
"Before . . . the information wasn't as accessible," he said. "As soon as I got this free application, . . . I definitely don't go to Chipotle anymore."
A few applications help women monitor their periods. Cycles is one of the free ones. You input the date of your last period, and the application predicts the dates of your next periods, your ovulation days, and the days you will be most fertile. It's all displayed on a month-by-month calendar.
For $3.99, you can buy iPeriod, which offers similar features but stores more information and offers colorful icons (smiley/sad faces for mood swings and lightning bolts to symbolize cramps).
And for women with infants, there's a swanky application called Baby Tracker for $7.99. When you're about to start nursing, you just tap a button marked left or right breast to start a timer that records your nursing times and dates.
Marl and his wife tried it out but then decided against it. "I thought, if we need an iPhone or a spreadsheet to track how we're feeding our kid, we're doing something wrong," he said.
Here's a small sampling of what else is available in the health-care and fitness category:
Lose It! (free): Lets you enter weight-loss goals, track your calorie intake, and calculate how many calories you've burnt through exercise.
Fast-Food Calorie Counter ($2.99): Offers nutritional information on thousands of menu items at 49 restaurant chains.
Vision (99 cents): Offers "eye exercises" and optical illusion tests, and lets you take tests to check for color blindness and astigmatism.
Yoga Stretch ($1.99): Plays an audio yoga session as an instructor guides you through poses. The application also displays yoga positions in sessions that last from one to 60 minutes.
Salt Shaker (free): Simulates salt falling out of a shaker when you jiggle your phone. Good for those on a low-sodium diet, perhaps?
My Life Record ($49.99): Lets you manage and access medical records including doctor information and images such as X-rays, ultrasounds and electrocardiograms. The company says it uses industry-standard encryption to keep the data safe.
Haskal said that while most health and fitness applications seem marginally useful, applications such as My Life Record show great promise.
"If your phone can access a list of your medications and maintain your medical records, and if it's password-protected and secured, it's as good as having it all in your wallet," he said. "That's something I want from every one of my patients."
Joseph O'Brien, an orthopedic surgeon at George Washington University Hospital, said calorie-counting and exercise-tracking applications might be very useful.
"If one of my patients had an iPhone, that could be a useful way to keep track of progress," he said.
O'Brien envisages an increase in the iPhone's usage in health care.
"Because it's a small computer, it's going to become more pertinent," O'Brien said.