Know what features are best for you and your members when looking for fitness and nutrition software.

IF YOUR FITNESS center does not use nutrition and fitness software, you might be earning less than you could. You may be working too hard and serving too few clients when creating fitness and nutrition plans. Your work could be less accurate and less thorough than it should be. Without nutrition and fitness software, you may be less productive and less profitable.

The latest nutrition and fitness software offers accuracy, comprehensive client reports and the ability to get much more accomplished in less time. This translates into a more positive professional image, more value for your fee, the ability to handle more clients, the ability to offer more services and a better return to your bottom line.

But how do you decide which nutrition software package to use? No software package does everything, so no single product will be perfect for every user. You will have to decide which product will serve you best. Since your primary product is service, you can improve your bottom line by increasing the number of clients you serve, or by increasing the number of services you provide to existing clients. Nutrition and fitness software can help you do both. To find the best software for your needs, keep in mind that you have an end objective.

Basic and enhanced features

Nutrition and fitness software should allow you to calculate your clients' calorie and exercise needs for them to lose, maintain or gain weight. It should also allow you to perform fitness tracking (exercises, activities, calorie expenditures); intake analysis (analysis of food records); information tracking (body weight, body fat content, measurements, body chemistry, etc.); and recipe analysis. These functions help you to generate exercise prescriptions, a variety of informative handouts, detailed reports and professional eating plans.

You'll want to make sure that any software you select will perform these minimal functions, as they form the core of what most health professionals need to do for their clients.

Calorie expenditure reports

One type of report that is popular with fitness centers is the calorie expenditure report. This type of report may go by a variety of names, but, basically, it shows how many calories would be used for each individual in a variety of activities. The report has the client's name and their most current body weight at the top of the report. It then lists a hundred or so activities and exercises, and the number of calories that this person would use in performing any of these activities for 30 minutes. If you give clients a goal of using, say, 250 calories per day, they can look at their calorie expenditures report and determine which activities they want to perform and for how long. They can mix and match exercises to reach their daily goal.

Because it is quick and easy to produce, and has high perceived value, this type of report is popular as an incentive to join your fitness center. Often, these initial reports serve as the first step toward having your client hire you to create a more detailed exercise plan.

Assessment reports

Like the calorie expenditures report, a customized assessment report is easy to produce. This report can be used as an incentive to join your facility or to hire a personal trainer. To create one, a "setup file" is used to control the contents and formatting. Information about the client (first name, last name, current body weight, desired body weight, daily calories to maintain current body weight, daily protein goal, etc.) is inserted wherever you want this information to appear in your report, and as often as you like. You can make your setup file as long or as short as you wish. Some products will let you create different setup files for clients who are losing, gaining or maintaining their body weight. Some products even provide "batch processing" so you can generate these assessment reports automatically for dozens or even hundreds of clients in a single pass.

Fitness manager

A fitness manager component is useful for tracking calorie expenditures from a wide variety of activities. Look for the ability to edit, delete and (especially) add new activities. Make sure that all calorie expenditures for added exercises are calculated based on the client's most current body weight. You'll also want the ability to enter results from workouts on different types of fitness equipment. Look for the ability to enter data from an indirect calorimeter (like the MedGem or BodyGem). Look for an override of calculated values (for instance, if a doctor prescribes a 1,000-calorie-a-day goal, then you should be able to enter this easily). Look for the ability to set up and track exercises based on target heart rate training methods. Look for packages that help you create workouts by combining exercises and scheduling them. The ability to organize exercises into categories is a plus. A "gym log" that lets you fill in exercises, reps, sets, durations, etc., and allows you to print them for clients is also a useful feature. Some nutrition and fitness software can graph your clients' exercise calories used over time, or exercise calories used compared to weight change.

Body fat reporting

Look for software that asks you to provide a "beginning" and a "desired" percent body fat, then calculates the client's ideal body weight based on the assumption that all weight loss will be fat, and all weight gain will be lean body mass. It will be up to you, of course, to assure that the client's exercise regimen is sufficient to make these assumptions hold. Look for software that will graphically track your client's progress by plotting body fat content over time, body weight over time or both.

Food intake analysis

A multi-day food intake report (also called "food recall" or "food record") makes it easier for you to make useful dietary recommendations to your clients. If you find that clients are taking in 57 percent of their daily calories from fat, and that they think nothing of eating cheeseburgers, fries, potato chips or milkshakes, your recommendations will follow logically from your nutrient analysis.

The key factors to look for when performing food recalls are ease of entry, versatility and flexibility. Most nutrition and fitness software packages let you record food intake by using their software on your PC, but some programs provide software that your clients can install onto their own PCs. Some even provide software you can install on your client's PDA so they can record their food intakes and exercise while they are on the go.

Client-side intake recorder. Client food intake recorder software is included in some nutrition and fitness products. It works like this: You give the software to your client on a CD, or have them download it from your website. They install the software onto their PC, and record their own food intake for any number of days. When they're finished, they click a button to email the information to you. You import their data into your nutrition and fitness software package, and produce an indepth intake analysis report, complete with recommendations. Save this report as a PDF file and email it back to the client. This takes a few minutes instead of a few hours if you had to do the work yourself.

Look for an intake module that is royalty-free, allows unlimited use and permits you to post the software on your website. Client-side intake recording software greatly reduces your work, involves the client in their own health, and makes your services more affordable and profitable.

PDA-based intake recorders. Some nutrition and fitness software will allow your clients who use PDAs (personal digital assistants) to record their food intake and their exercise and activities on their own handheld computer (PDA). You can transfer a database of foods and exercises to their PDA. They take their handheld computer with them, and record everything they eat and everything they do for any number of days. On their next visit, they hook up their PDA to your computer, and transfer their data into your PC's nutrition and fitness software package.

Client information and contact tracking

Although most professional nutrition and fitness software place no limits on the number of clients you can track, they vary considerably when it comes to implementation and management of client data. Top products allow you to track exercise data and nutrition information, as well as information like name, age, gender, weight, etc. They let you assign your clients into folders so you can organize them by affiliation (trainer, company, group exercise class), special needs (weight loss, bodybuilding) or any other criteria you want to use to organize your client list. The better nutrition and fitness software products provide you the ability to track clients' contact data in an integrated database that you can export on demand into a format suitable for use with your email program for mass mailings (like a nutrition newsletter, fitness center newsletter or special offers).

Nutrient database

Look for nutrition and fitness products that have a nutrient database that is wide (many nutrients) and deep (many food items). Some products track only a few thousand food items, while others provide information for tens of thousands. The number of nutrients tracked range from as few as 20 to more than 150 (vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids, etc.). Look for a good representation of brand-name foods, restaurant menu items, supplements, and "sport nutritionals" such as exercise recovery drinks, power bars, shakes, bodybuilding formulations, liquid meals and weight-loss products. Look for the ability to add food items, and for the ability to track additional nutrients that your software may not currently track.

Recipes

You may also want to look for software that offers professionally prepared recipes. And make sure you can organize your recipes into categories (bodybuilding, weight loss, vegetarian, hypertension, etc.). It's a waste of time to have to manage hundreds of dissimilar recipes that are lumped together into one huge listing. Having a ready supply of recipes will help you to use them as building blocks for custom meal plans.

Meal plans

The advice for recipes is also good for meal plans - choose a software package that offers a wide variety of ready-to-use meal plans. Meal plans are collections of recipes and foods that have been organized into three meals and three snacks (or more) per day for some time period. These plans are designed to address a variety of "special needs," like weight loss, bodybuilding, vegetarian, diabetic, healthy heart, low-carb, hypertension, vegan and so on. Professional meal plans for one special need at, say, eight calorie levels can take a registered dietitian many hours to develop, so creating all of your own from scratch may not be feasible for your business. Software can simplify the process. Be sure you can record a whole meal plan to a client's intake record, since this will save you hours of entering all of the foods and recipes for every meal and snack. Also look for packages that offer each meal plan at several calorie levels. And, finally, look for meal plan editing functions so you can modify any existing plan to suit the needs of any particular client, or use them as the starting point for new plans.

Web-friendly features

Increasing numbers of fitness professionals are using email and the Internet to communicate with clients and market their services. This is a good reason to select nutrition and fitness software that takes advantage of the Internet and its capabilities. Look for software that allows you to save reports (like recipes or intake reports) in a customized webpage, spreadsheet, word processor or PDF format. (PDF files can be posted to your website as a page, or sent to your clients as an email attachment.) If your software contains an integrated client contact manager, look for the ability to export client names and email addresses into a format suitable for use with your email program. If your software supports a web-based questionnaire, you can use it as a marketing tool.

Professional reports

The primary output from nutrition and fitness software is the report. Therefore, client reports are not the place to cut corners. Provide your clients with colorful reports on quality paper - let your report convey professionalism and value. Make sure your reports are easy to understand, useful, polished and comprehensive. If your reports are outstanding, you can improve your reputation with your clients. Professional reports will help you win your clients' confidence and trust, and the word will get out.

Some nutrition and fitness software products offer "fixed format" reports, in which the software maker pre-selects the reporting options for you. Fixed format reports have only one look. This is great for the time-crunched fitness professional who wants to offer quality without spending lots of time designing reports. Those who like to keep their options open can choose a package that supports "flexible format" reports. Flexible format reports allow you to select the nutrients and exercises analyzed, insert your photograph or company logo, and include pie charts, nutrition facts labels, client information, borders, drop shadows, dividers, colors, shading, page numbers, images, and a wide variety of other options. Choose a package that lets you save your reports in a variety of formats.

General software shopping guidelines

Look at the purchase of nutrition and fitness software as an investment. The more the software can do for you, the more services you can provide to members. And, the more services you can provide, the more quickly you'll recoup your investment. There are a variety of factors (like the features and capabilities discussed above) that you should consider when selecting the ideal nutrition and fitness software package for your needs. Look toward the future and consider going for more capability than you think you need right now. But there are also a number of general considerations you should evaluate, no matter which package you select.

Investment precedes dividends. This type of software doesn't come cheap, but keep an eye open for discounts. Discounts are often available to students, educators and registered users of competing products. And, if a lump sum payment is too difficult for you, some software makers will split your payment into two or three monthly installments.

Evaluate objectively. If you're reading an ad or surfing a website for this kind of software, filter the fluff and see if there is anything of substance left. Make a list of "must-have" features, and make sure the software you end up with supports all of these features. Compare products side-by-side and feature-by-feature.

Some questions to ask involve annual fees and discounts for upgrades. Some software companies send you an invoice every year at $200 for continued product updates and support. Others don't charge for continued product support. Instead, they offer toll-free tech support for as long as you use the product, provide free updates for the version you purchased and offer discounted upgrade pricing for major new releases (typically about half the retail price).

Web research. The Internet is probably the best starting point for researching nutrition and fitness software. You get the facts quickly, and you're able to compare products by reading the descriptions and following up with emails or phone calls. (See For More Information to get you started.)

Contact the software manufacturer. Email the software manufacturers a question or 10. Find out if they answer their email promptly, and answer questions clearly and concisely. Call their sales number and express your interest in learning more about their software. Use this initial contact to get a feel for what it will be like to work with this company after the sale.

Product support. Does the company provide a toll-free number for you to call if you have questions about their software? Are you allowed to use this toll-free number forever, or do you start paying for phone calls after you purchase the software? Does the software maker provide a detailed user's guide with step-by-step instructions for every feature of the software? Do they provide 24/7 email support? Often, the only way to find out is to ask. And, if you ask them by email, you'll also learn what their email support is like.

Read the end-user license agreement (EULA). Many software makers don't like to show you their EULA until after you've already paid for their software. But, since the EULA governs your rights in using the software, it makes sense that you should read it before you purchase. This document will tell you if you have to purchase separate copies for your work PC, home PC and your laptop. It will tell you if several trainers can use the software if you install it on a single PC. This document will also give you a good indication of the company's attitude toward you, their customer. Some companies post their EULA on their websites. Ask to review this document. Know what you're agreeing to before you agree to it.

Update history. Check the software maker's website for listings of all updates they've released for their software in, say, the past four or five years. Their update history will itemize the new features, nutrient database updates and bug fixes. Look for a record of continuous improvement. If you can't locate this information on the website, contact the company and ask them to provide you a copy of their update history. If they can't - or won't - it could be because they've made little or no progress in the past few years. When software companies withhold information, ask yourself why. Then ask them why.

Request an evaluation copy. If you have lingering doubts, ask for a trial version of the software. If you don't see a download page for an evaluation version on a company's website, email them and request either a download be emailed to you, or a CD be mailed to you. Some evaluations are presentations that walk you through the software - an idealized mini-tour - while others are fully functional for some time period. Working with functional evaluation copies gives you the opportunity to play with the user interface, get a feel for the software's power and flexibility, and compare it head-to-head with competing products. An evaluation copy can also provide fodder for follow-up questions before you buy.

The bottom line

Before you lay down your money, do your homework. Educate yourself. Visit company websites. As you learn about capabilities you believe will be useful, add them to your list of "must-have" features. Email questions to the companies who market the products that sound promising. Follow up with phone calls. Listen to the software maker's sales pitch. Get the answers you need. Take notes. Discuss your options with your associates. Then narrow your choices down to the single best product for your particular needs. If you've exercised due diligence, you won't waste time wondering if you made the right decision.

For More Information

Axxya Systems

Nutritionist Pro, Nutritionist Pro Food Labeling www.axxya.com

800 709-2799

Downloadable product demos provided

CyberSoft Inc.

NutriBase Nutrition & Fitness software

www.nutribase.com

800 959-4849

Links to 75-plus nutrition software websites; features the article (reprinted with permission from Today's Dietitian) Nutrition Software: 101 questions to ask before you buy; provides a 170-feature comparison chart of nutrition software

DINE Systems Inc.

DINE Healthy

www.dinesystems.com

800 688-1848

Provides software screen shots and offers a demo version download

Esha Research Inc.

The Food Processor SQL, Genesis R&D

www.esha.com

800 659-3742

Includes downloadable demos, fact sheets and sample reports; comparison chart is featured

Lifestyles Technologies Inc.

DietMaster Pro, DietMaster Client www.lifestylestech.com 888 286-7677 Software for weight-management businesses; download free trial version and electronic brochure; comparison chart offered

LogiForm International Inc.

FUEL Professional Version

www.logiform.ca

418 683-8585

Software for dietitians; nutritionists; and diabetes, internal medicine and sports medicine specialists; site features downloadable demo and product screen shots

Sasquatch Software Corp.

Food Smart

www.food-smart.com

800 656-6434

Website provides downloadable demo version