This App Thinks Conversations Are The Key To Better Fitness And Sleep

04/29/2015 11:01 am ET | Updated Apr 30, 2015

It's easy to start a diet and exercise plan, especially with all of the apps that exist to help you do so. The problem is sticking with the plan. Surveys show that people abandon their fitness trackers pretty quickly and regularly, but there's a new Apple Watch app that wants to keep you interested and guide you toward developing healthy habits that will last. It's called Lark.

The free app, which was released for the iPhone in 2014, uses the sensors in your device to track your movements and sleep. But its most important feature is its built-in personal assistant, which chats with you almost like a person would.

This automated health coach gives you advice to help you stay on track, drawing its knowledge from a database put together by a team of behavioral change experts, fitness experts, nutritionists and sleep experts. You can text or dictate to your automated coach, and it will ask you what you ate and give you feedback on your exercise, sleep and eating habits.

"Lark is like your personal weight loss coach or fitness trainer," Lark co-founder and CEO Julia Hu told The Huffington Post in an interview. "Most of our users are folks who want to lose a few pounds, and they've used a pedometer and calorie counter and it hasn't worked."

With Lark, there's no need to search for calorie counts or weigh your food, which can become tedious after a while. You just text or talk to Lark, and it logs your info and responds. The idea here is to keep you engaged so you don't give up on the app. Of course, there's no guarantee that you'll stick with it, but the amiable Lark assistant might make you want to try.

Though tracking calories closely can be difficult for some users, it can also be helpful to weight loss. Apps like Weight Watchers and MyFitnessPal assign either calories and fat or "points" to different foods, helping you make good decisions and see exactly what mistakes you're making. If you're not counting your calories and fat, you might be missing out on some key health information. Of course, counting calories isn't the only way to get healthy, and Lark takes aim at a different aspect: developing and nurturing smart habits.

"The biggest problem with exercise and changing new habits is that you have a lot of stories in your mind about who you are and what you do," Hu told HuffPost. You have to change the story you tell yourself in order to change behavior, and that's what Lark is here to do through data tracking, positive reinforcement and nudging you forward when you get off track.

Here's a look at how it works:

We tested the app and found that it's intuitive and simple to use. Chatting with it is like talking to a friend, and texting feels pretty natural, since we do it so often anyway.

"We've basically automated the world's best health experts," Hu told HuffPost of the app's personal assistant. "We've automated their coaching and turned that into your personal coach, and it chats with you based on your phone sensors."

Some of those health experts include NBA coach Cheri Mah, Stanford University professor Dr. Baba Shiv, exercise, fitness and nutrition exeprt Natalie Stein, human body clock expert Hyungsoo Kim and more.

Unlike a live chat session with a real human, Lark's built-in assistant is available at a moment's notice and can answer your questions in a matter of seconds. Though it draws from human knowledge, the assistant doesn't need to pause and think -- it's got all the info you need, queued up and ready to share with you. (Just make sure your device is connected to the Internet.)

This is what your activity, food and sleep tracking looks like in Lark on the iPhone:

lark app

Lark doesn't just track your waking life; it also tracks your sleep without forcing you to wear your Apple Watch to bed or keep your phone in your room.

In the morning, Lark will show you how long it thinks you slept, based on when you stopped and started using your phone or Apple Watch. "We found that people use their phones right before they go to sleep and right when they wake up," Hu told HuffPost. If the app doesn't figure out your sleeping hours exactly, you can adjust the estimated hours, and eventually it will start to remember and understand your habits.

Lark can learn specific things about your daily habits, like if you tend to put down your phone about an hour before you go to sleep, or that you often go on a walk on Wednesday afternoons. If you skip your walk one day, Lark will tell you and suggest you try walking later. By reminding you of patterns in your life, it can help you identify and keep good habits and form new positive ones.

Here's a look at Lark on the Apple Watch:

lark app

The Apple Watch app is especially simple, since the watch can collect your health information directly -- from the sensors in your phone and, if you let it, from other apps in your phone.

When it comes to privacy concerns over your medical information, Hu isn't too worried. "We sit on top of Apple Health Kit, where you can store all of your health data," she told HuffPost. "If you have other apps, we can take the data from those and coach on that. Our users trust us so much that 98.9 percent of them let us take their data from their other apps."

Lark asks users exactly what information they're comfortable sharing as soon as they create an account. "The user should always be in control of their data," Hu says.

At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how many fitness apps you have, if you're not motivated to change. Every behavior change starts and ends with your own dedication.

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