x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Obesity? We have an app for that

Cenna - named after Avicenna, the Latinised name of the Muslim scholar Ibn Sina - offers fitness tips and nutritional information, and its built-in forum allows users to discuss the challenges they face.

Left to right, Hassan Bello, 19, Murtaza Waheed, 25, and Ashiq Urrahman, 21, have developed an application to fight obesity. It includes exercise plans and nutritional advice, with access to fitness and diet professionals and a social forum where people can find motivation. Razan Alzayani / The National
Left to right, Hassan Bello, 19, Murtaza Waheed, 25, and Ashiq Urrahman, 21, have developed an application to fight obesity. It includes exercise plans and nutritional advice, with access to fitness and diet professionals and a social forum where people can find motivation. Razan Alzayani / The National

DUBAI // Three university students have devised a smartphone app to fight obesity.

Cenna - named after Avicenna, the Latinised name of the Muslim scholar Ibn Sina - offers fitness tips and nutritional information, and its built-in forum allows users to discuss the challenges they face.

The app, which runs on Android smartphones, also has an incentive system that gives users who meet weight-loss targets vouchers for gyms, clothes shops and even healthy restaurants.

"My problem was gaining weight," said Hassan Bello, 20, a computer science student at the University of Wollongong Dubai and one of the three developers. "We wanted to fix the lapses we each had.

"It's not always just a case of eat less and exercise more to lose weight - people also need reinforcement and motivation. It's not enough to just ask your friends."

Murtaza Waheed, 25, a third-year student of management and information systems, weighed 110 kilograms in his teens and is now a healthy 65kg, so he knows only too well the importance of motivation.

"People give up so often, so they need to be connected to other people struggling with the same things," Mr Waheed said. "For me, every time I was around my friends that weren't going through the same thing I forgot my issues and would end up back at square one."

New users are asked to spend three weeks telling the app what they are eating and what exercise they took. It then analyses that information to come up with a diet and exercise plan.

"Once we understand that, we can recommend what exercise a person ought to do and what kind of foods are best," said Ashiq Urrahman, 22, the third member of the team.

He said the social aspect sets the app apart from its competition.

"We've been focusing on the psychology of struggling to lose weight," Mr Urrahman said. "If you are able to find people in a similar position they can share that. They can also use it to compete and motivate themselves to push themselves more."

Mr Bello agreed that competition and targets help with motivation. "When you see the numbers and have a target, it helps motivate you. You need to be able to measure progress over time."

He said expert input had been vital. "Some people may see weight gain and assume it's a bad thing, not realising if it's simply muscle mass. This isn't something you can just guess or ask your friends. You need experts to guide you.

"It's the same with food; there's a big difference between bad fat and good fat."

Many of the exercises on the app can be performed at home, although the developers are in talks with a chain of gyms about becoming a fitness partner on the app.

Another Dubai company is planning to give the app to its 500 staff as a research sample.

Jes Body, a weight-loss specialist and personal trainer in Dubai, said the app sounded like a "great concept".

"Adding the social dynamic sets it apart from many other apps, and I'm sure it will be very motivating for some people as we all need support," Ms Body said.

She added that the social aspect would help those with a competitive edge.

But she warned it must be clear that information given by other users in the forum is not that of professionals.

Also, simple weight measurements on scales can be misleading. As a person trains and builds muscle mass, their weight on the scale may go up while their fat percentage falls.

"Focusing on overall weight can be misleading and could cause all sorts of psychological dramas," she said.

"What works for one person may not work for another. This could be hormonal, circumstantial, type of exercise, injury related and so on.

"I know with my own clients each person is programmed differently, even if their basic goal is the same such as fat loss."

mswan@thenational.ae