(USA Today) -- Smartphone health apps are on the rise, and Weight Watchers is struggling to hold its financial weight.
The weight-loss program, one of the oldest and most widely recognized in the nation, recently announced a drop in its quarterly profit as it struggles to recruit new members.
At the same time, mobile apps that help people count calories and keep track of their fitness routines are thriving.
Take Chris Cookson, a 23-year-old freelance animator living in Stamford, Conn., who has lost about 30 pounds in the last three months. When he decided to go on a diet, he turned to the app MyFitnessPal, which allowed him to monitor his food intake and exercise regimen.
"When you're already on your smartphone, it makes it so easy," Cookson says.
In the past few years, free health mobile apps have become increasingly popular across the country. The number of available health apps has almost doubled in the past two years, says Jennifer Grenz, vice president of marketing at Azumio, a company that has developed 12 health and wellness apps.
A November 2012 Pew Research Center poll says nearly one-fifth of smartphone users have health apps on their phones.
MyFitnessPal has become one of the most widely downloaded health apps, with more than 40 million users, says Mike Lee, co-founder of MyFitnessPal.
Azumio's apps have racked up more than 40 million downloads to date, and the number of daily downloads has increased, Grenz says.
This new industry has put Weight Watchers in a tough position. In addition to the company's lower sign-up rate, Weight Watchers' shares fell 19% last week. The company also experienced an approximately 16% decrease in second-quarter earnings for Fiscal Year 2013, the company said in its earnings report on Aug. 1.
"We feel that some of that is driven by the continued sudden explosion of interest in free apps and activity monitors," Nicholas Hotchkin, Weight Watchers' chief financial officer, said during an earnings conference call last week.
Weight Watchers and mobile apps have similar goals: getting people to become more aware of what they're eating and keeping tabs throughout the day.
The functions of health apps, however, aren't limited to counting calories or losing weight.
Apps such as Fitness Buddy and Nike's own Nike Training Club focus exclusively on acting as mobile personal trainers. The Nike app offers more than 100 workouts, from cardio to weight lifting, as well as audio trainer guidance.
"We are able to take elite-level athlete insights and incorporate them into the workouts," Nike spokesman Joseph Teegardin says. "The opportunity to provide motivation to every athlete is great, and we feel like this is just the beginning."
Other apps, such as SleepBot, monitor sleep patterns by tracking movement and sound levels. Stress Check helps determine levels of physical or psychological stress by measuring heart rate through the camera lens.
Just as programs like Weight Watchers hold meetings for dieters to discuss their progress, some health apps have incorporated social media. On MyFitnessPal, users can share updates about their own weight-loss programs.
"Being able to connect with these people at any given moment of weakness has been a tremendous help," says Samantha Banks, 24, a special education paraprofessional in Indianapolis. She's lost 50 pounds using apps such as MyFitnessPal. "I love having the ability to message any of these friends for suggestions on where I should eat out or what I should eat," she says.
Banks, who at her heaviest weighed 250 pounds, started shedding pounds before she bought FitBit One, which includes separate wireless activity trackers and an app. It costs around $100 and syncs with the MyFitnessPal app. The FitBit app also lets Banks earn badges for reaching certain milestones, like taking 35,000 steps in one day, and ranks her progress with that of other users.
It's not just apps that are becoming popular, though. Some companies such as Nike are turning to products such as watches or the Nike+ FuelBand to track fitness activity.
As for Weight Watchers, there's still hope. The company is transitioning to a new CEO, Jim Chambers, who in the next few months will be revealing a new company campaign to hopefully improve business in the digital age.
During the call, Hotchkin described mobile health apps as a "temporary phenomenon" because of the "science behind our program," which he says has proved that Weight Watchers works.
But Lee says health apps are extremely effective and will only improve as mobile technology evolves. "The capabilities will increase over time," he says. "We will be doing more and more to help users be successful."