Essays on Technology and Culture

My iPhone Fitness Setup

Despite the slightly dismissive attitude in my previous essay on health and fitness, I do care about getting into shape and losing weight. I’ve enlisted technology to give me the first push (and second, and third…), based on my experience of shedding thirty pounds through calorie counting and increased movement. Never a fan of systematic exercise, my main approach is making sure I get in a good amount of walking, and trying to maintain a calorie deficit. Living in New York City, I do a lot of walking, so it’s not difficult to reach my 10,000 step goal. Being mindful about what I eat, on the other hand, that’s a lot harder.

I use the Jawbone UP Move to track my walking throughout the day. I know that fitness trackers aren’t accurate, and possibly not even effective. I don’t care. Having one, and getting a general sense of the amount I move in a day is motivating. I’ve dallied with using my smartphone and a Pebble for my fitness tracking, but both have issues that get in the way. The Pebble doesn’t work well as a fitness tracker at all, and I’d like the option to go for a walk and have it count without dragging my phone along. While I’ve tried using my smartphone to track sleep, that’s a recipe for me hitting snooze. Instead, I keep the phone in another room, and use my Jawbone UP Move, clipped to a dumbwatch, to track sleep. [1] And, after my iOS 8 HealthKit woes, I’ll stick with dedicated hardware for fitness tracking.

On the software side, the two main apps in my quiver are Jawbone UP [2], and MyFitnessPal. There’s no app that does everything I want in one package, so I stick with both. MyFitnessPal is where I log my food, my weight, and get my calorie burn estimates. Jawbone UP handles my activity, and by linking my Jawbone account with MyFitnessPal, it’s able to pull my meal data in and score it for its Smart Coach feature. Two slices of dollar pizza from the store around the corner from the office might be under my calorie goal, but it won’t be a healthy lunch. MyFitnessPal keeps me honest, UP keeps me eating right.

That’s the heart of my digital fitness system in two apps and a dongle, but there’s a little more to it. I also use Jawbone’s UP Coffee to log my caffeine consumption—useful for seeing if having too much coffee during the day affects my sleep. (It does.) I also use the excellent FitPort as a replacement dashboard for Health.App. It’s much easier on the eyes, and easier to understand. The hard part is making sure all the data is in sync.

And that’s where things get frustrating. Since iOS 8 was released, I’ve struggled to find ways to keep all the health data I’m collecting together in a way that’s useful. I don’t plan to run any analysis on it, I just want to  see trends. After fighting with various apps and app settings—including turning off my phone’s ability to write step data to—I seem to have found a way to keep everything in order, especially since Jawbone’s fixed their HealthKit bugs in a recent update to their tracking apps. But Jawbone UP doesn’t synchronize all the data it has on me to HealthKit. For that, I rely on Health Sync for Jawbone UP by Jaiyo. This app synchronizes my active calories, BMI, and other useful data with HealthKit, giving me a better picture of my progress. I just wish I didn’t have to spend an extra $2 on an app to do what the Jawbone UP apps should do out of the box. That someone is selling an app to fill the hole in Jawbone’s HealthKit sync is a sign that someone’s laying down on the job over there.

The last app in my portfolio is FitStar, which provides short video workouts. FitStar syncs with Jawbone UP, so when I do a workout, it logs the calories burned and adds a workout to my daily activity. It’s a great app, and Federico Viticci uses it as part of his regimen. Unfortunately, I’m inconsistent at doing the workouts… or to put it more accurately, I’m very consistent at not doing the workouts. I just need to make time in my day and do it, and stop worrying about my downstairs neighbor who probably has more important things to complain about than me doing jumping jacks.

And that’s the thing: none of these apps and tools will drop the pounds for me. They’re aids to mindfulness and pushes to activity that I need if I value my long-term health. This is all a work in progress, and I can see any aspect of my tracking and fitness system being disrupted if I get, say, a smartwatch with top-notch OS-level integration, heart rate monitoring, and its own fitness tracking application. That seems a long way off, however. The weakest link in all of this is still the human one, and I’m working on that.

  1. You can argue if tracking sleep is worth it, but I like knowing the data is there. Nobody’s given me a compelling reason to track sleep, or a compelling reason to not track sleep, so I’ll stick with what I’m doing.  ↩

  2. There are two versions of the UP App, one that requires a tracker, and one that does not, so you don’t have to drop $50 on a tracker if you just want to use your phone.  ↩