Insight Timer: a meditation app worth a second look

A long time ago, I downloaded Insight Timer, an app that to the best of my recollection, did the one thing it was for in an attractive way. In other words, it timed my meditation and had a nice mindfulness bell at the beginning and end. At the time, that is all it did. You could change the timer, the way that it counted down meditation, and the sound it made to signal completion, but that was basically it. At the time, that didn’t seem like enough to earn it’s keep on my iPhone and I deleted it.

However, I recently joined an online group where the moderator had started an Insight Timer group to meditate together. An Insight Timer group? I decided to review the app again. To my surprise, the app has become so much more than I recalled- in fact, it has become my primary meditation app. I even cancelled my headspace subscription!

The original Insight Timer app is still there, under the Timer tab at the bottom of the app. You can still choose what starting and ending bell you prefer (there are more choices for a small fee of $2.99). You can choose a background noise, like a sound bath, which may amplify the effects of meditation ( see this article). Again, there are different options for a small fee- this time, $1.99.

The part of the app which has really stood out for me, and is free, are the new guided meditations and music. The guided meditations are from different teachers of different spiritualities and points of view- some are specifically aimed at a type of spirituality or religion, and some are more aimed at general mindfulness and health. I was impressed to see Thich Nhat Hanh, Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, all for free! I’ve been using the guided meditation, “Morning Meditation with Music” by Jonathan Lehmann most mornings, and really like it. There is also a music section that has binaural beats, which in studies, have been shown to help with anxiety (you need headphones for these). I’ve been listening to “Whispering Notes” by Pablo Arellano at night. I can’t tell you specifically what it sounds like past the first fifteen minutes because I  have been completely asleep by then…every. Single. Night.

There are also groups of different meditators, who opt to meditate at the same time, or just offer support on a basic wall dedicated to that group. I haven’t explored these much yet. You can add friends as well and communicate via the app. I haven’t decided exactly what I think of that-you can opt to turn off this feature, and had I started off again today, I might have chosen to turn this feature off. I have had a few people sending me odd, intrusive questions that I chose to ignore in general.

Overall, if you’re planning to start a meditation practice, I can’t recommend this app enough. Recent updates show that the company is working towards organizing the guided meditation and music in a way that enhances the experience for the user.

What meditation app are you using? I would love to hear via your comments below!0E70ADC7-E63F-4BBF-A47E-3399C6C85484

Be an involved citizen with personal technology!

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One of the great responsibilities and privileges of a democracy is that each citizen must participate in the government and election of those officials who we allow to run our government. Even if you do not vote, you are making a choice for the status quo, one way or another. We are all lucky to have the choice to decide whether we want to vote or not, and who we want to vote for. Whatever your political viewpoint, citizens are more galvanized to make a difference now than ever. Although technology is NOT a substitute for calling your elected official to voice your opinion, going to a town hall meeting, starting a petition, or participating in a march, technology CAN help you do these things more easily. The first step is to know who your representatives are, and you can find them at https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials.

To keep up with the issues, you can read most of your favorite newspapers and magazines on your iPad or iPhone. I try to read a few different sources to get different viewpoints, all from my iPad: the New York Times, The Economist, the Atlantic,  and I read through the PBS app as well. I also skim the Washington Post. Your favorite resources may differ depending on what your political opinions are, but I urge you to learn as much as you can from reputable resources, no matter what your political leanings.

There are a number of apps designed to help you keep track of legislation. I’m currently using Countable (https://www.countable.us, free), which is available on both iPad and iPhone. I’ve been pleased with it- the app gives you news related to executive orders and political issues, as well as legislation currently passing. You have the ability to “vote” and comment on the issue, and the website reports that they deliver your vote, comments and address to your representative so they can get back to you. I have no idea if they do or not- it seems unlikely that they would be able to respond to that volume. To me, the main benefit is being aware in real time what the bills are which are being voted on, and what the results were. The site seeks to be non-partisan, and can also tell you who your representatives are. Clicking on your representatives’ photo in the app leads to a page that shows you how they have voted on issues. Clicking on the icons below their name can take you to their home page with contact information, Facebook page, twitter account and you tube accounts. I do feel like the one liner that Countable gives you for why you should or should not support a bill, while meant to be brief for clarity, is not enough information in many cases to decide- which is why I suggest reading broadly.

Another app similar to Countable is iCitizen (https://icitizen.com, free). The ratings on the iTunes are lower, partly because of the perception that the app skews right. I am not sure if this is true or not, because I found it difficult to find anything of real substance in terms of legislation- it seemed like polls such as “Do you have a favorable opinion of Obama and Trump?” I do not think that these sorts of polls really help us be more engaged with our government, or for that matter, engage in any genuine way with each other. Perhaps there is more information on the site about bills, but about 10 minutes of reviewing the site did not reveal this, so I feel the layout could probably be improved!

The app Trackbill (https://trackbill.com, free, upgrades super pricey) is another app designed to follow legislation. I think this would be excellent for someone like a journalist covering legislation or a staffer even. I do not need to have the level of detail that this app has- but I can imagine someone might. For instance, on an upcoming bill, it gives the date, location and committee for the hearing, a list of the actions taken on the bill, etc. It could also be helpful if you are really interested in one particular bill, so you can see EVERYTHING that has happened with that bill. Also, there are upgrades to track unlimited bills, committees, legislators, keywords, etc, and that comes with an extreme cost: nearly $1000 per year!

A lesser considered opportunity to get involved with your democracy- volunteer work! I like the site volunteermatch.org, where you can sign up for volunteer work based on your interests and your location. For example, if animal rights are your interest, there are 94 opportunities to get involved in the San Francisco area as of this writing! If education and literacy are important to you, consider one of the nearly 500 volunteer positions open!

I hope you were inspired to get involved with your community and your country. Do you have other ways to stay involved? Please let me know in the comments below!

Using an app to streamline meals at home

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We cook nearly every day at home- it’s MUCH healthier, since restaurant meals are loaded with extra calories and sodium, and are much larger than the normal home cooked meal.  It is also much less expensive to eat at home, generally. However, we have a busy family with two adults who work full-time! How can technology help?

  • One obvious way is to use a service like Blue Apron, or similar, that delivers meal components that you then assemble at home. The cost of this can be much higher than what you would make on your own.
  • You can make a list and order your groceries on-line through a service like Peapod, then make your food at home. The cost of delivery can be $7 or more, which is still reasonable. However, we have been unhappy with the quality of the groceries, and sometimes have trouble anticipating when we will be home for the delivery.
  • You can make a list, grocery shop, bring the groceries home and make dinner. This is the cheapest, but also the most time consuming. For us, time is a premium.

Our family has found a very streamlined way to shop and cook with minimal expense. First of all, everyone who is an adult in the household has the app Paprika ($4.99, https://paprikaapp.com). I love this app. There are several “recipe box” type apps, but I like Paprika because it can accept recipes from any website. I am always finding recipes online at different websites, but they all have their own proprietary “recipe box.” Paprika can merge these altogether.

  1. Each week, we make a menu plan, which is easy, because you can assign the meal to a specific day. You press the shopping cart button at the top of the recipe, and presto! The ingredients appear in your shopping cart, organized by the section of the store they would be found. By syncing, the shopping list and all other changes are pushed to every adults’ iOS device.
  2. Then, someone orders groceries online from the local supermarket. For us, at Harris Teeter, this is a $4.95 charge to collect all our groceries, bag them, and bring them to refrigerated cases in front of the store, which are locked. We choose a time to pick up the groceries, but this is quite flexible. We can choose meals based on what is on sale in our store. The store calls us if there are substitutions that need to be made, and I have noticed the quality seems to be better than the delivery services in our area.
  3. At the appointed time, one of us drives up to the front of the store, rings the bell, and someone loads the groceries into our car, while our payment is being processed.
  4. Whomever is home first starts the meal, which is pre-planned on Paprika now, with the recipe in the app. We use an old iPad as a dedicated “cookbook” for our kitchen.

That’s it! How do you make meals more efficient? Let me know in the comments below.

Resolution #4: Read more this year!

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In this series, we have talked about how to make resolutions, how to troubleshoot lagging resolutions, and then, apps to support common resolutions: losing weight, running, getting finances in order…This is the last of the series. Reading more is a common resolution, and this one, I’m an expert in!  I read both paper books and electronic books.

I use two reading apps every day: the Kindle App and Goodreads. I do a lot of my reading on the Kindle, both a Kindle device (the Voyager) and the kindle app on my iPad. I actually prefer reading on the actual Kindle if I have it with me because I find the e-ink is easier to read, but also, there are less distractions. My iPad has Facebook, email, etc, and I find myself checking them more often than I would like. I don’t like iBooks as much. I find the page turning lags, and the book selection is not as extensive as Amazon’s.

I both read and annotate books in the Kindle app, and when I am finished with a book, I go to www.kindle.amazon.com, to cut and paste my highlights and notes into a note in Evernote. In that way, all the highlights are fully searchable and in one place. You can just use the Evernote clipper, but I prefer to have one book per note in Evernote.

I also borrow books on my Kindle. I find people are often surprised you can borrow books from the library on your kindle, but as long as your library has an e-library, most of the time, you can borrow them within the kindle. If the books are not available on the kindle, you can usually use an app called Overdrive, which can manage library books- and is in some ways easier to borrow books on, but doesn’t allow you to read them on different devices like the Kindle app does. After the allotted time, usually two weeks, the book disappears from your kindle, but the highlights remain.

Goodreads is another app I use all the time. I have a reading list which is probably longer than the time I have left on this earth. Every time I hear a new book suggestion that I am interested in, I put it in the Goodreads app, which is a social media site for readers. You can write reviews, read others’ reviews on books, and get suggestions for books you would be interested in. Also, if you’re hoping to read more this year, you can set a Reading Challenge goal for yourself. If you have a book on your to-read list that goes on sale, Goodreads will alert you, which is nice.

I also have a few resources I regularly find books in. The first is Bookmarks magazine, which basically compiles reviews of books, in a sort of book review meta-analysis. They have great suggestions. The other resources I use daily are www.earlybirdbooks.com and www.booklemur.com which are free services. You sign up for the services, choosing what subjects you are interested in reading about, and they email you a list daily of books in those subjects that are on sale, usually about $1-$3, which is a substantial savings!

Are you a reader? What apps do you use? Connect with me on Goodreads here.

Resolution #3: Get your finances under control!

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First of all, Happy New Year!

This is probably the most difficult of the new year’s resolution series for me (not directly mental health related), but I think maybe one of the most important- finances. I think along with losing weight (blog #3 in this series), getting out of debt and getting finances under control is a frequently made resolution. There are so many apps out there that it is difficult to know where to start in terms of reviews.

A first step, an app which you probably already have is the app for your own bank. A lot of these online services have bill pay, the ability to input upcoming bills, and make budgets. However, if you feel you need something else, consider one of the other apps.

I like Mint (www.mint.com), which is free. I used to use Quicken, which I loved, and Quicken is mostly replaced now by Mint. Mint can sync with your bank, credit cards, investments, and give you an up-to-date idea of your finances. You get a free credit score with them, and the app will help you make budgets and financial goals. You can get emails and notifications when you are behind in your goals, or over your budget. It can be hard to plan forward, however, with Quicken, because though it does have the ability to input expenses which have not cleared your bank, it isn’t always the best at recognizing the expense once it does clear- creating a double entry. Also, you have to be a little vigilant about making sure that your expenses are going in the right budget categories, though it mostly gets them correct. There is an Apple Watch version, too.

If you’re planning to use the Dave Ramsey method of financial management, but want to use your ATM card still, I found You Need A Budget to be very helpful (www.youneedabudget.com). The apps are free, but they sync to the desktop version, which is $50 per year. This one lends itself to the idea of the envelopes of cash earmarked for a specific purpose very well, and also syncs to your bank. The YNAB on-line bulletin board community is very active/helpful, and their customer service was quite good. A friend who paid off all his debt through the Dave Ramsey method also sings the praises of this app as well. There are free classes (budgeting, debt reduction, etc) via their website and I think this app has more of an educational angle, so if you’re clueless where to start, this can be a good place, along with bankrate.com, to get some information. There’s no Apple Watch app.

If you’re interested in trying to get control of your finances, but prefer the low-tech method, I also like the templates from www.vertex42.com. They have some great forms to use for budgeting and money management. When I need a calendar or spreadsheet for budgeting, this is usually my first stop.

I’m interested in what other people use for financial management- let me know in the comments below! There are so many apps, I would love your input!

Resolution #2: Run more often!

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Since we talked about weight loss apps in the last blog of the series, it makes sense to review apps from another common, related resolution: running. Some might try simply to start running, while others want to run more often, or a specific distance.

There are good reasons to run for exercise. A recent study suggested that running may help your brain make connections possibly because running requires more than putting one foot in front of the other, but rather, planning the terrain, pace, etc. Running is helpful for mental health, and losing weight. Running helps build toughness and resilience. If you join a running group, running can help you make social connections- I’ve found that runners tend to be a friendly group of people!

Apps are especially nice for running, because they can help you track distance, time, route, but also suggest running programs. There are different apps for different types of runners as well.

One I’ve always liked is the Nike + Run Club app (free, www.nike.com), because it adds a competitive component to my running, but also has nice integration with music, and had the ability for friends to cheer you on with “likes” during your run. It was also one of the few I found that measured treadmill running accurately. However, the new version of this may not be as accurate, based on the recent reviews. If you have the new Nike + apple watch, it might be a no-brainer anyway, but I would consider a different app until the reviews improve. Also, it does not integrate with some of the most popular calorie counters, like myfitnesspal, which is why I stopped using it.

Another running tracker is Endomondo (www.endomondo.com, basic app free, premium app costs extra). This one is very popular, and I guarantee you at least one friend is on this app. In order to set a specific goal, you have to have a premium app. I used this one for some time, and was unhappy with the accuracy. It integrates with most calorie trackers, though, and has an apple watch app. It also tracks a lot of different activities, not just running.

Do you have trouble getting started? Maybe you can make running more fun by “gamifying” it. The concept is that you combine the points and achievements of a game with a habit- something that I’ve been seeing more often. The most popular of these is Zombies, Run! (free app, more for premium version, www.zombiesrungame.com). I’ve tried these, and thought they were fun, but I’m a little wimpy and afraid of Zombies, anyway- no “the Walking Dead” for me! They are worth a try if you’re a gamer, and having trouble getting out, or need some extra fun and incentive.

If you’re running a 5k, there are several apps that will help you track “couch to 5k.” The classic one is “ Couch to 5K running app” -catchy, eh? It costs $1.99 (www.active.com) but is part of the active.com website, where you can also look for and sign up for your 5K race, and use their extensive fitness calculators.

Many of the running apps have running programs, including 5K, marathons and everything in between, built into the program. My favorite running app, and the one I use now, is Runkeeper (free, but extra for premium plans, www.runkeeper.com). I’ve been quite happy with it, and here’s why:

  • It’s very accurate, even in the out of the way, rural place that I am writing this from, with little to no cell phone reception.
  • It has an Apple Watch app, and integrates with my calorie tracker.
  • The running plans are designed by famous running coaches, like Jeff Galloway
  • It is easy to use.
  • As I run, I earn bonuses- I just got a 20% off coupon running gear!

There are so many running apps- which one do you use?

Resolution #1: Lose weight!

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In the first blog of this series, we talked about writing better resolutions, which are specific, measurable, timed, and have a “why.” In the second blog of the series, we talked about ways to be more accountable in your goals, and general goal tracking apps. The remaining blogs of the series will review apps for specific goals.

I think the most common New Year’s resolution is to lose weight. Not surprisingly, the iTunes store is flooded with calorie trackers! I’d like to narrow it down.

  1. Fitbit (www.fitbit.com): free app. If you have a fitbit, this is a no-brainer. The app has evolved a lot since I bought my Fitbit One a few years ago, with it’s oh-so-stylish belt clip. It tracks activity, sleep, food, hydration…Most people who use this app seem to love it since the upgrades, but there were a few complaints about being buggy. I used it when I had a fitbit and was very pleased with it. I also used the desktop version with no problems.
  2. Weight Watchers (www.weightwatchers.com): app free, requires subscription. This is probably the program I recommend the most often as a physician since it has good science behind it, as well as the meeting accountability. However, I’ve used just the online version ($3.84 per week) and felt that it was no different than any other tracker- it’s the meeting that makes the difference. Since I used this last, they have a one on one coaching program, that’s around $10 per week with the app that I probably would do instead. I have to be up front- I found the points confusing, and felt irritated with “I have four points left- what can I eat with four points” because I’m so used to eating in terms of calories and the points system was not intuitive for me. There is an apple watch version.
  3. Lose it! (www.loseit.com): app free, $4.99 for premium that adds more content, meal planning and better integration for health problems like diabetes. This is the classic app, the one that you read articles about “I lost 10 lbs using an app.” They’ve kept improving it since then, with great tools to help you lose weight. However, the integration with other apps isn’t as good as some other apps (for instance, I use FitStar for my workouts, and it doesn’t integrate with this app, so I would have to manually input my workout into Lose it!). On the other hand, adding meals is a pleasure, and it suggests calorie targets for each meal. As you input meals, it adjusts the targets- for instance, if you exceed your target for lunch, it reduces lunch and dinner accordingly. Brilliant. It has groups built into the app. There is also an apple watch version. Syncs with with the fitbit and the Nike Run Club (an app I really like that doesn’t sync to that many calorie counters).
  4. Calorie Counter and Fitness Tracker by myFitnessPal (myfitnesspal.com): free app, premium content $9.99 which includes no ads, ability to change macronutrients, etc. Has there ever been a worse name change from MyFitnessPal (short, catchy) to this long, drawn out name? I’ve been using this app, partly because it integrates with so many other apps and my apple watch. It also syncs to the fitbit, but not the Nike Run Club. Has a nice community dash board for encouragement from friends, and challenges. The online version is good, too, if you want to input food from your laptop.

My choice: If you’re willing to spend the money and go to meetings, I’d choose Weight Watchers. If you have a fitbit, the fitbit app is worth using since you can track sleep in that app, but as far as I know, not other apps. However, you can use the fitbit with all of the other trackers here, and if sleep is not important to track for you, I like all of the other food trackers better. I think in the end, it comes down to what apps you are using for exercise, and whether the calorie counter is compatible. I’m impressed enough with Lose It! to consider switching, and inputting my fit star calories separately, but I also have a community built up in myFitnessPal.

What apps are you using?