A beginner's guide to your phone's health apps | Popular Science

A beginner's guide to your phone's health apps

How to use Google Fit or Apple Health.

Runner

Both iOS and Android track basic activities automatically.

Apple

A plethora of health trackers promise to help you get in shape. But before you start browsing the options, check out the apps built right into your phone. Google Fit and Apple Health, which both launched in 2014 on, respectively, Android and iOS, track your activity through sensors on the phone itself or through compatible wearables.

While they share a lot of the same basic features, the two apps do differ in ways that go beyond the interface. Google Fit provides a more basic steps-and-activity counter, and is available on the web as well as Android phones and tablets. Apple Health gives you a more comprehensive, full-on health monitoring service, but only works on Apple devices.

If you've never opened up these apps on your phone before, now's your opportunity. You can be tracking your steps and counting your calories in no time, using the device you already have—and getting fitter along the way.

Google Fit setup

Fire up the Google Fit app—if it's not already on your phone, you can download it here—and log in with your Google account. Once you enter a few personal details about yourself, you'll be up and running (quite literally, if you want to celebrate with a jogging session).

You don't need to do anything special to activate or enable Google Fit. It works automatically in the background: As long as you keep your phone on you, it will measure your steps as you walk, run, and cycle. If your device misses something, or you put down your phone during a workout, you can add activities manually. Just open the app and tap the plus icon in the bottom right corner of the interface.

To start using the app more mindfully, try setting goals. Tap the plus icon, choose Add goal, and you can set a target for yourself. These targets could include, for example, walking a given number of steps, remaining active for a certain amount of time, or doing several different activities—it's really up to you. Setting goals makes the Google Fit interface a bit more interesting, as the app will track your progress and let you know how well you're doing.

Google Fit

Google Fit sticks to the basics but does them well.

Google

Speaking of the interface, the front screen, called Home, summarizes how much activity you've done today and how near you are to hitting your goals. Scroll down the page for a more detailed readout that includes recent highlights, like that 10-mile hike you took over the weekend.

For even more detail, you can switch to the Timeline. Access it through through the main Google Fit menu, which you open by tapping the hamburger button in the top left corner. Timeline breaks down all of your recent activities individually. You can tap on any of them for more details, and even view your walks, runs, and bike rides on a map (if your phone was logging GPS coordinates at the time).

Google Fit can also give you real-time statistics during an activity. Hit the plus icon, then Start activity, and then select your activity of choice. You'll see time, steps, calories, distance, and so on as you go. If you're walking, running, or cycling, you'll hear an audio prompt every time you hit a mile, although you can disable this digital cheering section in the app settings if you prefer.

You can also access this information through a web interface. This Google Fit view shows your goals up top and displays a more detailed breakdown lower down, but doesn't split the Home and Timeline into separate sections. You can scroll back through your history, and again you have the option to add new activities manually via the plus icon.

Taking Google Fit further

Having your phone track your activities as you go is all well and good, but you don't necessarily want to take your device with you to tackle, say, a 10k run or a soccer game. That's why you should consider syncing a wearable tracker with your Google Fit account.

Android Wear smartwatches are the obvious place to start: Any Android Wear watch can track your steps and activity, and some come with embedded GPS (check the device specs for details) to let you plot your route on a map. You won't need to carry your phone everywhere with you—instead, everything syncs up once you get back home.

A number of other wearables also play nice with Google Fit, including bands from Xiaomi, Under Armour, and Misfit. Unfortunately, Fitbit hasn't made its trackers compatible with either Google Fit or Apple Health—and of course the Apple's Watch works with its own platform rather than Google's.

Android Wear

Plenty of Android Wear devices plug right into Google Fit.

Google

You can also pipe extra data into Google Fit from other apps. Sleep As Android, for instance, can track your sleep and send the data to Google Fit, while Calorie Counter will help you log your eating habits. Google Fit also works with popular running and cycling apps like Runtastic and Strava.

If you're used to something like Fitbit's app, which combines activity, sleep, and food tracking into one program, then Google Fit can seem pretty basic. But it's capable of tracking a host of different activity types and presenting that information simply and clearly. And because it's built right into your phone, you'll never miss that reminder that you haven't yet hit your step count for the day.

Apple Health setup

Apple really wants its iOS app to be a one-stop shop for everything health-related. Apple Health performs all the same basic tasks that Google Fit does, but adds a host of extra options. It can track everything from blood pressure to fiber intake—just not by itself. Apple relies on third-party apps and devices to fill in data for some of these categories. Apple Health goes broader than Google Fit in terms of your overall health as well, with the option to store details of your medical history, your allergies, and even your medical records.

But let's start with the basics. If you own an iPhone, then Apple Health will automatically track your steps and activities as you go about your day, with no manual activation required. If you don't want to use this option, however, you can turn it off in the Privacy menu in Settings.

Open up the app, and you'll see your readings for the day. Tap the calendar entries at the top to go back in time, or switch to the Health Data tab for a more detailed dig into all of the app's categories. Choose Activity, for example, to see how many flights of stairs you've climbed in a given day. For any category, you can add data manually by hitting the plus icon in the top-right corner of the screen. And to make a given category show up on the front screen, simply add it as a favorite.

Apple Health

The Apple Health app includes four main sections.

Apple

To figure out which apps are connected to Apple Health, tap Data Sources & Access inside any category. Apple Health will show you which other apps can log that category's particular type of data. Head to the Sources tab for a more detailed look at all the apps sending data to, and collecting data from, Apple Health. You can turn any of the data feeds on or off—if you want your running app to log miles covered but not calories burned, for instance, then just toggle the relevant switches.

Finally, the Medical ID tab on the right holds your key medical information, which you can input or change with a tap on the Edit button. If you toggle the Show When Locked switch at the top to On, then this information (allergies, medical conditions, and so on) will become accessible from your phone's lock screen. That setting reduces your privacy, but it could save your life if you're involved in an accident and can't pass on the relevant details yourself.

Taking Apple Health further

As with Google Fit, you can extend the capabilities of Apple Health further by connecting various additional apps and devices. Based on our experience, Apple's platform seems to have slightly more third-party support than Google's. As we've said, you can dig deeper into any category to see a selection of apps that can track that particular data point.

The usual suspects, such as Strava and Runkeeper, work well with Apple Health. You can also connect more obscure apps like Lark, for tracking nutrition, and Clue, for menstrual cycles. To add sleep tracking, the App Store has a selection of apps—Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock is one of the most comprehensive.

Apple Watch

The Apple Watch is designed to work seamlessly with the Health app on your iPhone.

Apple

Of course, the ultimate companion device for Apple Health will be an Apple Watch. This wearable can pipe in information on activities you perform without your iPhone, and it gives you a bunch of reminders and progress charts to let you know how close you are to hitting your daily goals. It's also the only Apple-branded smartwatch that lets you set targets for yourself—otherwise, the Health app just logs what you're doing. If you want to get encouragement and reminders to hit your targets, then you either need to buy the wearable or get another iOS app to do it.

The Apple Watch isn't the only device you can plug into the Health app though: Trackers from Xiaomi and Misfit will work too, as will more sophisticated gear like the Wahoo Tickr X Heart Rate Monitor. If you're picking up a device to help you stay healthier, then check the small print to see if it's compatible with Apple Health.

Apple Health handles a lot more data than Google Fit, but as a result, it's also trickier to learn to use. However, both these apps do an excellent and pretty straightforward job of giving you access to all your basic activity stats, whether or not you decide to invest in a dedicated tracker.

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