Apps and fitness trackers

Technology – Bane or Boon

I admit to being a giant nerd, and have loved computers even before my career in them.  My wife is perpetually complaining about the array of cables and chargers that must accompany us on any trip.  That being said, I also appreciate walking and biking so much precisely for the meditative aspect of being out in nature and present in the current moment.  Therefore, I like my tech to be as unobtrusive as I can get it.

A number of folks have asked me what kinds of apps or technology I use to help track my rides or walks.  I’m probably a bad example insofar as I use a Windows Phone (along with 3 other people, apparently).  That being said, I love the phone, although it makes me put up with a much smaller variety of apps than Android or iPhone users enjoy.

But since most of the apps I use have analogs on those platforms, and the features and capabilities needed are probably similar for most folks, I’ll discuss what I use and why I like it and what can be improved.  If you have apps that you like instead or for different reasons please do feel free to share them in the comments section.

Phone apps

MyFitnessPal

When I first started to get healthy again, I realized I had no idea what I consumed in terms of calories and nutrients like proteins, carbs, etc.  And it was apparent from my weight that I was eating the wrong things and too much of them.  A friend turned me on to MyFitnessPal, and it has been a staple ever since.  I’ve dropped over 50 pounds using it to help me understand what I’m actually consuming, versus the activity I am performing with all this exercise.  MyFitnessPal has an amazing database of foods and exercises, and lets you even add your own recipes.  Most other fitness apps will uplink to it as well, which is handy most of the time (more on this later).

MapMyRide

I started off using MapMyRide, which was a bike-focused version of MapMyRun or MapMyFitness, all made by the same company.  But since being bought by UnderArmour, they have, predictably, increased the advertising and paywalled features that were the most useful.  That being said, it’s still a nice way to track routes, share them with others, and so on.  My favorite part about this app is that it saves your history in perpetuity as far as I can tell, so if I want to know “how many miles did I walk this year” or “what’s a good 20-mile ride from this spot” or “how did that shortcut to the bridge I took last month work again”, I can find that out.  It uploads and downloads to MyFitnessPal, so when I was using it to track my rides it was a great time-saver to have that data sent right into my calorie tracker.  More on this later.

Screenshot (2)

Unfortunately, it’s always been a PITA in terms of real-time tracking, at least on the Microsoft platform.  You can’t really pause the app (say if you pop in a store to buy a bottle of water) and it occasionally just drops the ride you’re on and loses all the data.  And I’ve never been able to get it to share routes created on the web site with the phone.  Finally, at least on my Microsoft Lumia 925 and 950, it really doesn’t cope well with spotty GPS signals.  If I’m among tall buildings or indoors for a minute, it will jump all over the place and record that data as if I magically popped 100 yards south and back in 3 seconds.

Now that I use another app for ride-tracking, I’ve had to disable the synchronizing with MyFitnessPal, since my entering the ride data into MyFitnessPal and the route into MapMyRide was causing the same info to get synched twice, once each way.  But I keep using it for the route history, and because it’s calorie tracking is more accurate than MyFitnessPal (MapMyRide will know that I walked uphill and adjust accordingly, whereas MyFitnessPal only tracks minutes walked/ridden/etc.).

Cyclometer

Cyclometer by PartnerInFlight Industries is a great little Windows Phone biking app that I use for all of my biking and some of my walking, though it really is designed for the former.  It has much more accurate “smoothing” of GPS data and handles pausing easily, and even subtracts time you are not moving from your workout time (you can see this in the 53 minutes for total time vs. 48 minutes for workout time in the second pic below).

It exports to Facebook and MapMyFitness for free, and has paid add-ons for a small fee for MS OneDrive and Strava uploads, as well as removing the ads and enabling heart rate monitors.  It even reads your stats to you periodically if the screen is turned off (time, calories, speed, etc.), so I can use it for hours without affecting my battery.  One of the better phone apps I’ve used on any platform.  However, given how bike-centric it is, I still tend to use MapMyRide, even if I have to enter the route and time manually and let it calculate pace and calorie expenditure.

Strava

Strava is a hard-core cycling and running app for people who are probably a lot more competitive than me.  It excels at all the tracking and measuring things, but seems to be more focused on trying to beat your last time or your friends’ time on the same route.  At my age, I’m generally happy to survive the ride and am less interested in competing with anyone, but it works well that far.  If you have other reasons to use it, I would love to hear about them.

Summary

If I had to summarize my requirements for phone apps, they would go something like this:

  • Handles diet AND exercise
  • Accurate GPS reading, smoothing and error handling
  • Copes with pausing of rides, using other apps, taking calls, while monitoring
  • Understanding of elevation change and/or heart rate monitoring for more accurate calorie estimates
  • Long-term storage of data for later analysis and summary
  • Doesn’t kill my battery life (hint to developers – use a dark color scheme).

Bands

Phones are great, because I pretty much always have one with me, but it might be nice to have something that doesn’t require me to dicker around with it mid-ride, or make me worry about killing my battery.  Fitness bands like Fitbit, Microsoft Band, or several Garmin models seem like they would do the trick, though I haven’t yet overcome concerns about their security, privacy implications of being constantly tracked, or the cost, but am likely to break down soon.  Given my phone platform, and the sheer number of activities it supports (including golf) the MS Band seems most attractive at this time.  If you use one, what do you love or hate about it, and why?

Spreadsheet

All this fancy gadgetry is nice, but sometimes old-school is the way to go.  I started this whole journey with a home-rolled Excel spreadsheet to track my weight, sleep, and so on.  It’s grown over the years, and while much of the data is duplicated with MyFitnessPal, it tracks sleep patterns, other self-care information, like how long since my last massage and flossing frequency, and allows for much more detailed summaries of different types of exercise.  I’ve left a couple of rows of sample data so you can see how it works.  [Note that the first cell is blank as there is no previous bedtime to calculate length of sleep from on on the first day].

Link to template here:  HealthTracker-template

 Conclusion

I find my various technological aids useful for two main things:

  1. Keeping myself honest with how much leeway I get on my calorie intake
  2. Helping with motivation and adjustments with historical trending

Using the phone has so far been OK, if a little more distracting than ideal.  I will likely move to a band in the near future once I feel a little more confident about their reliability and security/privacy.  My net value measurement goes something like “If it makes me get out more, and work smarter, then it is probably a worthwhile tool.  Otherwise, ditch it.”  I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.  What do you use, and what do you wish you could get?

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