Fitness and Health Tracking Tools

Over the last ten years or so, it has become much easier to track almost every aspect of our life. Once we started carrying a computer (aka smartphone) in our pockets all the time, a lot of things changed. In some ways, that’s not necessarily a good thing since apps can track where we are and what we’re doing at any time. There’s definitely a privacy aspect to consider about this.

But it has made tracking health and fitness much easier since a lot of it can be completely automated. Apps can track your workouts, where you did them and various things like heart rate, calories burned, etc. Connected scales can send your weight and other important measurements to the cloud, where that information can be connected to various other services automatically. Even tracking the food you eat is pretty easy, although it’s not fully automated.

I wrote about how I lost nearly 60 pounds in 2017 recently. One of the things that helped me immensely with that goal was being able to track various parts of my life with technology. A lot of this could be done the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper, but I’ve tried that in the past and it was hard for me to maintain over time. Technology can automate, or at least speed up, much of the work and it made all the difference in the world.

There are a lot of different tools you can use for this, so my system is hardly the only way to do it. But I thought I would share what I use for anyone who’s interested in looking into this a little further.

Note: I’m an Apple fan so everything I recommend is based in the Apple ecosystem. I’m sure all the same things can be done on other operating systems such as Windows and Android but not having used them myself, I can’t speak for any of the alternatives.

Hardware Devices

The two primary devices I use are the iPhone and Apple Watch. The iPhone runs a lot of the apps that track this information (which I’ll get into shortly) and the Apple Watch tracks a lot of it automatically throughout my day:

  • Calories burned
  • Exercise minutes
  • Heart rate
  • Steps
  • Sleep hours and quality

Probably the most important piece of the puzzle for my own success was the ability to set daily goals and track the number of days in a row that they’ve been reached. Once I had a decent streak going, I found it easier to find the time to exercise every day. I didn’t want to “break the chain” once it got going.

This idea of “breaking the chain” comes from a post I read on the Lifehacker site over ten years ago – Jerry Seinfeld’s Productivity Secret. I don’t know if he was the first person to come up with this but that’s where I first read about it so I’ve always thought of it as his idea.

The other hardware device I started using about halfway through the year is a Withings Body Composition Scale. This scale gives me my weight, body fat percentage, muscle mass, BMI and several other measurements and it connects to my wifi network to upload that information automatically. I used to track this information manually but would sometimes skip it if I was pressed for time simply because I didn’t want to make the time to take note of everything.

Now, one note about all this. I don’t know if any of this tracking is dead-on accurate. I’m not sure if the watch tracks calories, heart rate, etc. as well as a dedicated monitor would and I don’t know if the scale is able to determine my BMI and other combined measurements precisely either. I’m not as concerned about this information being exactly right as I am about seeing how it changes over time. I figure that as long as I’m using the same tools to measure my progress, the results are all relative to one another.

Software Tools

There are a lot of software applications and web services that can pull this information together. Some are built into the iPhone & Apple Watch while others track information from other sources and combine it with that data. Here are the ones I’m using at the moment…

Apple Health

This is the backbone of a lot of this tracking. The Health app is built into the iPhone and tracks all the data from the Watch, as well as other apps on the phone.

The Health app itself is not particularly user-friendly so I use a couple of other apps to view the information. The first is called HeartWatch. This app pulls in all the information about heart rate, calories, exercise, etc. and presents it in a much easier-to-read format than the built-in Health app. It also tracks sleep information and gives you some data about your sleep patterns.

The second reporting app that I use is called Cardiobot. It duplicates the functionality of HeartWatch to some degree but I prefer the way it presents heart rate information. It makes it easy to see trends over time, which was valuable for me during last year.

Being overweight, my resting heart rate was higher than it should have been when I started making changes to my lifestyle. I could clearly see it getting better over the course of weeks and months with the Cardiobot app, as the changes I made started to have an effect.

Workout Apps

I’ve tried a bunch of different workout apps over the last year, and can’t really say that any one in particular was better than another. A couple of them stuck with me, however.

Gymaholic – I use this app to track my weight workouts in the gym. It’s got a pile of different exercises in it so I can build a routine that suits me. The main reason this app stuck with me over some of the others I tried is that I really like its Watch app. It makes it easy to track my workouts without having to carry my iPhone around the gym with me.

Nike+ Run Club – I tried a lot of running apps last year but this is the one that suits me the best. I have the Nike version of the Apple Watch but it works with any model, not just the Nike-branded ones. I haven’t done any running for years, and was never really a fan of it, so I needed some really beginner-level guidance on how to get started. The Nike app takes you through a few early runs to set a baseline for your skill level and then has running routines for various degrees of experience. If you’re already an experienced runner, I don’t know if this would be the best app but as someone coming at it with little to no knowledge, it worked really well.

Workout – This is the stock Workout app built into the Apple Watch. I use this app when I’m walking, on the elliptical machine or rucking. It’s not the fanciest workout app but I find it’s the most reliable of the ones I’ve tried for the Watch. I’ve never had it stop a workout mid-stream with no explanation or not track the information properly.

Other Tracking Apps

In addition to all the above, I use a few apps for tracking specific bits of information. Most of these require some degree of manual input but they’re still relatively easy to stay on top of.

Lose It! – This is the app I use to track the food I eat and the calories I’m taking in. Its food database is excellent. It’s rare that I don’t find the exact thing I’m searching for, right down to the brand name of the food or the name of the restaurant I’m in. It does quite a bit more than that, but I’m really only using it as a nutrition tracker.

WaterMinder – Tracking my water intake is one of the things that I’m not as consistent with as I’d like. I sit at a desk all day for my job so I’ve always got a bottle of water beside me. I’m usually pretty good about drinking enough water throughout the day but on days that I’m not at work or I’m not at my desk, I tend to forget. This app helps me stay on top of that.

Sleep Watch – The Apple Watch doesn’t have sleep tracking built into it but there are several apps that can do this for you. Sleep Watch is the one that I’ve been using. It runs in the background on the Watch so if you wear the watch to bed, it will track how long you sleep, when you’re restless and other such things. This creates a bit of a challenge in that you need to be creative with charging the watch but if you keep that in mind, it works great. I usually put my watch on the charger for an hour or so in the evening and while I’m showering and getting ready in the morning, and that’s plenty to keep it running all day and all night.

Gyroscope – Gyroscope probably deserves its own post, it does so much. At the lowest level, it’s a tracking tool that pulls information together from many different sources. It creates reports for various aspects of your life and you can set goals to work towards every week. This is essentially my “dashboard” where I can see at a glance exactly how I’m doing on various things.

This probably sounds like a lot to manage, I know it would have seemed that way to me if I had looked at it a couple of years ago. It takes a bit of time to get used to tracking everything, particularly the few things that require some manual input, but once you get the hang of it there’s really not much to it.

And being able to review your results and make changes to your lifestyle as you go is pretty invaluable.

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