03/21/2014 08:38 pm ET Updated May 21, 2014

If Your App Tells You to Eat Less and Exercise More

A recent Science Section of the New York Times devoted itself completely to a review of a variety of electronic/Android/iPhone devices that are supposed to make you thin, fit, and rested 1. The ability of such devices to track your activity awake and asleep, to monitor how quickly you are lifting fork to mouth, or reminding you to get up from your chair and move, is remarkable. A few decades earlier, such devices would have hovered on the edge of science fiction.

So, to paraphrase a well-known saying, "For whom do these devices ping?" it is safe to say that in descending order, they appeal to techies for whom anything that requires code to be written is worth obtaining, professional athletes and their coaches, dedicated fitness folk, worried about weight persons, insomniacs who prefer to look at their sleep monitors rather than count sheep, and those who think their life might improve with several hundred dollars worth of gadgets. We all know someone who fits this mold.

But the app that will make us all healthier and allow us to live longer has yet to be developed. Can the creative minds in Silicon Valley come up with an app that will tell us to stop trolling the Internet or obsessively finishing a mystery and go to sleep? Will they develop an app that scolds us to order a salad, not French fries with our hamburger, use the stairs rather than the elevator, drink water, and take those cookies out of the shopping cart and put them back on the supermarket shelf? In other words, can they create a mother app?

Can we put in an order for an app or device that records how much we are eating and how little we are moving, even when we don't want to know? People often have selective amnesia when it comes to remembering how much dessert was just consumed, the amount of cheese, crackers and wine eaten as a pre-dinner snack the prior evening, and how many minutes were spent working out in the gym.
Amnesic examples:

"I just had a bite, a crumb. See all I left on my plate? I ate hardly anything. "
In actuality: "I didn't see any dessert left on the plate." "The box of crackers is almost empty." "There is only a tiny bit of cheese in the refrigerator. What happened to the rest?"

"I really worked out hard in the gym today; must have spent at least 30 minutes on the treadmill."
In actuality: "Really? Ten minutes on the machine and 30 talking with a friend doesn't seem like a strenuous workout to me."

"I just drank one glass of wine at dinner. I have no idea why so little is left in the bottle."
In actuality: "Then there must have been someone else sitting in your chair, drinking from your wine glass."

No one wants a surveillance camera over the refrigerator or covertly attached to gym equipment. No one wants one's spouse or partner or friend wearing a wire to record our eating and exercise. But many of us are mindless about what we eat, or how much physical activity we do each day. How can we improve our behavior if we don't accept that our behavior needs to improve? How can we change unless we can see and acknowledge what we are doing?

But can the clever technology folks go one better and come up with devices and apps that work as a combination of mother, nagging spouse, elementary school teachers, weight-loss counselors, and personal trainers that will somehow get us to do what we know we should do? Having such a device, of course, is not sufficient. Simply being told that we just ate a 12-inch high stack of onion rings, or that we haven't moved from the couch all day, is not going to make us change.

The next steps must: a) motivate us to alter our behavior; and b) do so in ways that are acceptable; i.e., small steps at a time. For example, when an alarm clock wakes us out of a sound sleep, it often is impossible to go from being deeply asleep to awake, so instead we press the snooze button to make the transition more slowly. So too, programming an app to decrease calorie intake and increase physical activity will be more successful if the transition to better eating and exercise habits is slow and personalized.

Getting someone who last ate a green vegetable when it was strained and came out of a baby food jar to munch on a kale salad for lunch every day is unlikely to work, no matter how cute the app. Exercising in public, such as walking, may be embarrassing for an extra-large individual, and doing jumping jacks in the living room may feel too silly to be an option. Solutions will not come automatically, but given how successfully devices such as a cell phone have changed the life style of billions of people, there is no reason to think it cannot be done. After all, we no longer rely on a rooster to wake us up.