Who will talk you down from eating that oh-so-tempting cookie that your colleague just unveiled, when you’re trying to watch your weight? The answer might be Coach Alba ($5 per month; additional texting fees may apply), a text-messaging service that helps you power through “crucial moments” when dieting.
Coach Alba works on any phone (or service) that uses text messaging—it’s platform independent. Your coach is highly automated, and after swapping a few dozen messages, the pattern of your coach’s replies reveals itself. Alba can be repetitive at times, but she can also swoop in at just the right moment to remind you of your goals and help you stay on track.
How Coach Alba Works
When you sign up for Coach Alba—and no credit card is required for a free two week trial as of this writing—you start seeing text messages almost immediately. Your coach asks you to reply to the messages to gather some basic information about you and your dieting strategies. For example: “Does the following crucial moment (CM) apply to you? Y/N [new message] I’m hungry for an unhealthy snack.” You reply, and Coach Alba asks some more questions about how you might overcome your next CM, when the CM will likely occur, and other information of that sort.
When you hit a stopping point, Coach Alba lets you know that your little texting session is over and that she’ll check back in soon. You often get to decide when that next moment will be, such as just before the critical moment or after it, and when Alba follows up, she’ll ask you to rate your success.
Over time, your coach learns more about you, such as the people who are around when you suffer through CMs or your location when they occur, and adds a touch of personal information. Alba might write: “I’ve noticed that this CM comes at 8pm. Same this time? Text ‘Same’ or a new time” or “Will Tim be around with it happens? Text ‘Same’ or a new person.”
Although Coach Alba largely looks to you for ideas on what time you’ll have your CMs, you can always text “#CM” to start the coaching session any time, day or night.
If you’re not looking to correct bad eating habits and lose weight, you may not need Coach Alba. Instead, check out the best fitness apps for other goals, like gaining muscle, counting calories, or physical fitness training.
Putting Coach Alba to the Test
I tested Coach Alba using an iPhone 5 for about a week with the goal of nixing a few bad habits, like overeating at dinner and falling prey to mid-afternoon sugar cravings. I liked Coach Alba most when she texted me right before the crucial moment—she usually asks if you would like to be reminded of your strategy before the CM. Once I realized the service worked best for me in that way, I always replied yes. A message received at 3 p.m. reminding me to drink water instead of nibbling on a piece of chocolate worked better than getting a text at 4 p.m. asking me how it went (because, duh, by then I had already eaten the chocolate and forgotten entirely about texting for help).
Coach Alba always gives you the option to continue texting (“Choose one: 1. keep going! 2. subscribe now 3. txt live help”), which I suppose you might want to do if you’re feeling lonely or vulnerable, but in testing the service, I often felt D-O-N-E done with Coach Alba long before she was ready to check out. Especially during the first two days of testing, the messages felt incessant and impersonal because they said the same thing over and over again. I didn’t want to be at Coach Alba’s beck and call.
After day two, however, Alba lightened up on the messaging and I became more accustomed to how she worked. If you don’t reply to a message, she leaves you alone for a few days. And when a crucial moment strikes, you can always resume by texting #CM.
Nice Touches, Additional Features
Coach Alba also has a Web dashboard at which you can log in to see your progress in resisting temptation and making good choices over time. When you get through a CM with flying colors Coach Alba asks you to record your success rate on a one to seven scale, one being utter failure and seven pointing to an easy win. Those points appear in graphs in the dashboard, and you might be able to see your willpower strengthen day after day—see the slideshow for an example.
As I noted, the automation of the text messages is obvious. For example, if you reply that you don’t want to take a certain course of action, Alba might suggest it again immediately thereafter, and if you reply yes the second time, she isn’t aware of your inconsistency. If you tell her a CM happened at “work” and another CM happened at “office,” she doesn’t ask whether these are the same place. When robot Alba fails and can’t understand what you write back, a live person is supposed to jump in to help. I never encountered live help naturally, so I wrote “no” a few times when it didn’t make sense to trigger the live person.
The live help replied within five minutes, which was much slower than the robot replies, but also less pressing and more natural feeling than Alba’s all-too immediate feedback. I typed complete sentences that I knew a robot wouldn’t understand, saying that I made a mistake and typed the wrong thing, and the live agent passed the “real person” test easily. Sam asked quick and direct questions about how to resolve my errors and got me back on track to use the automated system within four messages. All told, it took 12 minutes. He signed off with a cheery, “Good luck!”
The service is only available in the U.S. at the moment, and of course, the $5 per month subscription may not be the only associated cost if you get nickled and dimed by your phone carrier for text messages. The messages can get excessive pretty quickly, in part because Alba sometimes sends a note over two texts rather than combining them into one. My guess is that on the back end, Coach Alba is making sure to mete out texts in a way that she’s never cut off my a limited character count on the receiving end. Still, she texts a lot. I wish Coach Alba did have some platform or carrier specifics included that might make me eligible for texting discount. For example, I’d love to have my profile marked as “iPhone user” so I could skirt the additional fees via iMessage.
Whenever you’re ready to stop the service, you can simply text “Stop,” easy as that. She’ll reply with a short message confirming you’re out, and that you can text any time to re-activate the service. In my case, the live agent checked back in to make sure I didn’t type “stop” accidentally, because it was only moments before that when he and I were chatting. When I told him yes, I did want to quit, he confirmed and I haven’t heard from Alba since.
Dieting Success Through Texting?
The most important thing Coach Alba does is raise your awareness of your bad eating habits and weaknesses, and that alone may be worth $5 a month. It also gets you to focus on coming up with strategies that are effective, and with the online dashboard, you can see over time what works time and time again versus what doesn’t work. If analyzing your trends is what you’re really after, you might consider getting on the activity tracker wagon and wearing a modern day version of a pedometer that will measure your activity throughout the day, and often your sleep, too.
Bear in mind that Coach Alba was designed specifically for people who are trying to lose weight, and it’s easy to see how this motivational service can interrupt someone right before a CM and, in essence, distract them from the temptation and keep their focus on healthy habits instead. But it can also feel annoying at times, this texting bot who asks the same questions over and over. Still, I say try Coach Alba for a month, as the price isn’t too high and you can quit anytime if the messages become too frequent.
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Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc