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My journey with personal fitness technology

The Software and the Middleware

When I first started to track my data more seriously – say about 2012 or 2013, there were a few sites out there. I started to religiously record my food / calorie intake on one (in fits and starts) and ensure that others were connected, following many rabbit holes. The data was “out there” amongst various sites. Remember this: when there is no product being sold, you are the product. All the free health sites that popped up – most because of the mobile phone tracking people could do, but also because of the initial explosion of Fitbit – all were ultimately selling us to someone else.

I tried a couple nonetheless. Here is what I found, and in parenthesis I’m noting who ultimately purchased the website, with a little comment about that too. Also note that, with the exception of RoadrunnerGPS, communication via social media is built in to all of these systems – but you don’t get a lot of control over how things are shared. They are on, or off – and there’s a solution for that.

RoadrunnerGPS

Image credit: Crackberry.com

RoadrunnerGPS has now been dead for about 4 years. If I ever do find the data I captured, which is around here somewhere, I will be sure to upload it somewhere useful. Anyway, as I remember that data stayed on the phone and it uploaded to the Roadrunner GPS site. It wasn’t fancy, but it tracked your running. That site did what I wanted, or so I thought. It did the basics, and there were some updates to add a couple of new features. However, as went the Blackberry’s fortunes, so apparently went the developers’. They are gone as of 2016, as they never seemed to successfully move their software to other platforms.

It’s too bad, too – the software probably would have done pretty well for the five bucks I paid for it (I think this was my first paid app). A couple of API calls to link into some of the other software listed here, and they would have done ok.

Fitbit (Google)

Fitbit wasn’t my first real foray into fitness-y software, but it was the most customer friendly when I used it. By that, I mean that the website’s design (and it is all about the web) was clean, and the colours and layout quite modern. The design of the site was very welcoming and very social-forward. Lots of people bought lots of Fitbits, so lots of people connected with friends there.

Let’s start with what was good about Fitbit. It tracked data from multiple data points (Fitbit One and Aria scale in my case). It let you monitor them over time. It let you find other friends. It let you challenge them to weekly step contest. It was cool getting a year-end wrap up that told you that you could have walked from Vancouver to Paris with the steps I took that year. This was neat stuff.

The cons? Remembering that this is 2013 – the Fitbit needed a widget in a USB port on my computer (a desktop, no big deal) to sync. And it tracked steps and stairs (I gave up on sleep, as that was a PITA), and the scale my weight. That was it.

It also transferred data out to Endomondo and MyFitnessPal. I will talk about data integration in a bit. Fitbit was neat, but was limited at the time. You could, of course, do calorie tracking and water logging, as that seemed to have become de rigeur by that point, but really it was still all about counting your steps, and challenging your friends in weekly step contests. So, not really my thing, but it was fun for a while to find “Fitbit Buddies”.

Mrs. Insuriosity now has a modern Fitbit smartwatch of some kind, as does a friend of mine. They’re neat, and quite competitive in the app-watch space – because make no mistake, I think these are smartwatches trying to compete with Apple Watch, from an established niche fitness brand (known for electronic step counters). These are app-watches. But, people love them, and that’s all that really matters sometimes.

Fitbit’s acquisition by Google will be interesting. It’s going through some additional scrutiny, for all the reasons that I mention in my post on Privacy and Social Media, and my misgivings about Google. It seems like this acquisition is in a second review phase, mainly due to privacy concerns. To quote from the Business Insider:

An acquisition would give Google access to the data Fitbit’s 28 million users, and although Google said it will not use people’s health data for advertising purposes, there are still unanswered questions over how else that information might be used.

Hugh Langley writing at Business Insider

mapmyfitness (Underarmour purchase #1)

Mapmyfitness was the first acquisition Underarmour made in the fitness-software space. The site is a collection of several sites all starting with the “mapmy” prefix: run, hike, ride, walk, and the overarching fitness. Originally, it appeared to be a neat way to use the GPS on your phone to log your runs on a map.

I honestly never used the app – I had signed in to too many by that point, I think, and kind of thought “what’s the point”. Well, I’m not too smart, as Underarmour saw the point in 2013, and made this their first acquitision. Now, it seems, it’s a way for them to sell connected running shoes. That’s enough – I don’t need to charge up my shoes. My watch is good enough, frankly. (Watch, I say this now, but if there is an open standard across shoe makers in 5 years….)

The app seems to have all the same offerings as others – challenges, friends, training, etc. So, it depends on what you want. I look at mapmy as an open system, but not the one I choose. Being tied to a brand, I’m not sure it’s the way I want to go. Still, it’s pretty interesting that a niche underwear maker has now expanded to move into this space.

The use of GPS data did lead to some fun hacks people were doing along the way, including a fantastic campaign (not limited to the mapmy group) for bringing awareness to testicular cancer. I remember this starting with a woman on the Nike+ app back in 2014, by the way – and she was doing it just for fun.

MyFitnessPal (Underarmour purchase #2)

Image credit: Wikipedia.org

Myfitnesspal was one of several acquisitions by Underarmour as they ventured into the virtual fitness space.

They’re your pal! They’re my pal! They’re myfitnesspal! Yipee! Trite name aside, I logged into MyFitnessPal for the first time in precisely forever. According to the site, I became a member there in August, 2013 – I believe because of a recommendation from a tech podcaster that I have followed for a while.

MyFitnessPal acts as an aggregator of sorts. It allows you to track your food intake, your hydration, and your excercise; it has friend connections, naturally, and also a blogging space so you can talk about your journey – because, apparently, we’re all on a journey (including me, with this post). Plus, you can import data into the.

I do remember using this site to track my food intake for a while. Let me tell you, tracking what you eat is a pain in the ass, so like many I wanted to try it, and did so for a while. I was better at tracking breakfast (at home) than I was anything else. To be fair, this doesn’t just track food you make at home – it has most restaurants and menus, including Canadian ones, but you can add anything if you get the nutritional data.

The bottom line is that, even though I had become a bit of a data junkie, this was just far too granular for me. It works for many, to be sure – I just found it to be two much friction for the benefits I perceived I was getting. I was spending more time trying to use the features that were there, and less time trying to use the features that I wanted. It was gobbled up by Underarmour in February, 2015.

Endomondo (Underarmour purchase #3)

I only sort of understood Endomondo. I know that it did data interchange with my Suunto data, and with the myfitnesspal and the mapmy stuff. I know it was kind of a data aggregator so that it could be platform agnostic. I think that for a time, I found it interesting, but it was a short time – a week or two. Then, it just did it’s thing. It was a good enough site, and came out during an immature time in the market. It didn’t seem to expand to the point where, say, Fitbit got to. It integrated with a lot, and that seemed to be the big thing – but it didn’t seem to take off, although it’s still used today. It was good for what it did.

I don’t remember actually using Endomondo much. Initial setup and then very occasional check-in. It was gobbled up by Underarmor in February, 2015, during the same acquisition as MyFitnessPal.

Movescount (Amer Sports)

Suunto, the makers of my fabulous Ambit 2S watch, had an Achilles’ heel – namely their software. It was all web-based with a widget that sat in your app tray, waiting for you to plug your watch in. Once you did, it downloaded any of your data, and uploaded it to their website, which was called Movescount. That is one crazy name – they might have been better calling it “Bagel” frankly, but I get what they were trying to do. They were being hip, and cashing in on the fitness cache, and moving is what mattered, moving is what counted, so each of your activites that you tracked was called a “move”. I am just glad that they didn’t call them a “movement”.

So, you go out to ski or go for a run, and it’s called a “Move”. You get home, plug your watch into the computer, and it uploads your “Move” to the Movescount website. From there you can see it like anything else. You could connect Movescount to a couple of different services, including (from memory): Endomondo, MyFitnessPal, and Strava. It also connected to Twitter and Facebook – until one of Facebook’s previous API changes borked it, and they never got it fixed. That’s when some of the fun was lost for me.

I used movescount a lot. I had a couple of hundred activites in Movescount before my Running Termination Syndrome (RTS) TM kicked in, mostly running, cycling, skiing and hiking. That watch even helped me backtrack on a very lovely night-time snowshoeing trip where we got lost. Then all of it just uploaded into Movescount. It was great. It took all kinds of data – run, cadence, heart rate (through a very accurate strap), etc. – and plotted it against your gps maps. It was cool.

The folks at Suunto have finally buckled under, it seems. Being behind the two leaders in smart watches (arguably Apple and Garmin), they were far down the pecking order, and there was a wide gulf between them and Garmin as well in the specific space. They’ve moved their platform to Android Wear, and have moved their website away from Movescount to the Suunto App in 2018 – another reason I was bailing on the platform. The new Suunto app is made for them by a third party app maker called Amer Sports, who do a lot of white-label programming for sports brands. I’ve pulled all my data out.

The site was fine, but ultimately it’s been shut down. I don’t miss it as I find the other sites much more expansive.

Garmin Connect and Connect IQ

Here is the grand-daddy of them all, if you ask me. First of all, Garmin basically invented the fitness watch category – or have at least been the ones to beat. Those who had the chance, say Timex with their Ironman brand (who missed the boat), Suunto (who still try to compete), Apple (who are app-first not fitness-first) and Fitbit (who are trying to compete with Apple, and are now owned by Google) can’t compete on the lock that Garmin has on the hard-core fitness community – or us wannabes.

The Connect app is fantastic. Your watch syncs to your phone which syncs to the web, it’s nearly instantaneous. I liked my first watch so much I bought the corresponding scale to replace a flaky Fitbit Aria. The sheer amount of data that the watch can collect, out of the box, is staggering – and something that pro athletes could really use, let alone us total amateurs that want to run around 15 to 20 km a week.

That said, the complexity of the data is presented in a way that doesn’t ovewhelm. The watches upload step and stair data, let you track all sorts of activities through native Garmin-created apps (stand-up paddleboarding, anyone?), and have rich data fields that show you up-to-the minute information, along with information-over-time.

There is also Connect IQ, which is the separate app store for Garmin. Watchfaces abound, but so to do apps by both Garmin and third party developers. To be clear: this is not an Apple or WearOS watch. There aren’t a zillion apps doing two zillion things. The apps are primarily fitness focused and help to ensure that the myriad of sports out there have a plethora of choices. Suunto had this too – but the Garmin store is much richer. My favourite is the app that tells me how many beers I’ve burned off on each run.

The telling thing is that I go into Connect after each run. I check the stats and see how I did, I see my splits, I do all the things in the native app that I would want to. This is a great web-based and app-based program that gives you a snapshot, and a holistic view, of how you are doing. It’s specific to Garmin, but given the back-end is so good, and is so well integrated to a very powerful and easy to use watch, it’s an easy pair to recommend.

Strava

Strava is the most recent middleware platform (for me) is Strava. I always ignored Strava, even 7 years ago when my Suunto watch could push data to it. It’s been around since 2009, and frankly I thought was mostly for cyclists or triathletes. Now, however, it seems to be used by everyone.

Nearly everything can connect to it. You can run Strava on your phone, or you can connect your watch (Apple, Fitbit, Garmin, Suunto, WearOS and others are supported) – or rather your watch’s middleware component – to Strava and have it collect data. It collects data from my Garmin Connect site nearly instantly, and in turn posts it immediately at the Strava site. And it collects all the data, meaning you can see heart rate and cadance and VO2 Max and all manner of other data that I don’ t understand.

One of the cool things about Strava is their integration with If This Then That, which seriously helps to overcome limitations in both Connect and Strava, namely that neither one will automatically post a workout to your social media feeds. You can set Strava up to post to your social media accounts with different information for different types of workouts. It’s really handy, and works instantly.

They also do a bit of a heatmap, where you can watch a replay of your GPS track, and see what other Strava users – runners, cyclists, walkers, whatever – you passed by while on your own run/walk/cycle. It’s a really interesting feature that also lets you discover other routes. There are many other features of Strava, some of them now going behind a paywall. I’ve got a 60 day trial and just might see how that goes – so stay tuned. If I delve into it, I’ll write a review.

All of that said, I have determined that Strava is essentially where your fitness-minded friends have gone having been shunned from Facebook for running or cycling too much, and since Facebook killed the ability to auto-post stuff on your main feed. At least, that’s what it is for me. I like it, and I like the handful of friends I have on the platform. I’m going to keep using it for a while and see if it offers me something unusual or different from Garmin Connect.

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Author

ommoran@gmail.com
Insurance is my profession, and one of my passions. Motorcyclist, runner, skier, photography newbie. Nerdy tech geek, craft beer enthusiast. Thoughts are my own. Snark is omni-present.
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