How to do more with your fitness tracker

Harvest that activity data.

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If you’ve recently invested in some kind of fitness tracker, then you know they can track your steps, activity, sleeping patterns, and even your food and water consumption. Manufacturers advertise that their trackers let users set small activity goals that all add up to a healthier lifestyle. But this relatively limited application doesn’t take advantage of the sheer volume of data that these devices pump out.

You can use all that information to pick out larger patterns in your behavior and adjust your lifestyle accordingly. To do so, you don’t have to be a genius—you just need to know the right apps and tools to use. We’ve collected four different ways you can do more with your fitness tracker data, whether you want to give yourself a motivational boost or combine the input from multiple devices.

1. Log your data

Most fitness trackers come with their own apps, which sort your data, such as daily steps or goals reached, into the program’s default storage and display formats. What if you want to play around with your information, graphing your own activity or even sharing it on social media? The free service called IFTTT (If This Then That) works with many trackers (including devices from Fitbit, Misfit, Nike+, and others, though it doesn’t yet offer support for Apple smartwatches or any device running Android Wear) to take your data from the default app and put it into any other format, such as a spreadsheet or social post.

IFTTT connects different types of apps through “applets.” Each applet has a trigger (if the trigger occurs…) and an action (…then the action responds). For example, if you post a tweet, then IFTTT might post a Facebook update at the same time, or if you star an email in Gmail, then it might automatically save a text copy to Dropbox.

Google Sheets
Start doing some serious fitness data crunching. David Nield/Popular Science

Harvesting information from your fitness tracker takes just a few clicks. Sign up for a free IFTTT account and start creating an applet. The program will offer you an array of apps to choose from, and you simply select your tracker from the available list. Then you decide what action you want—what would you like to do with your fitness information?

For example, you could add your daily step count to a spreadsheet like Google Sheets, and then turn the data into customized charts of your progress over time. You could also post details of the goals you hit to Facebook, Twitter, or even a Tumblr blog. Or maybe text yourself reminders when you start failing to hit your weekly targets. IFTTT gives you lots of options, so open the application and poke around.

2. Trace patterns in your behavior

A tracker app might tell you how many steps you’re taking, but it won’t notice whether hitting a certain amount of steps puts you in a better mood. To do that would require a data aggregation service, and of the numerous such apps out there, Exist is one of the best. It lets you connect a variety of tracker accounts, including ones from Fitbit and Misfit, plus information from Apple Health and Google Fit. Then it crunches the numbers to give you updates about correlations and other patterns in the data.

For example, if you log your mood daily through the Exist app or via email, it can pinpoint just how your daily step count affects your mood. It can even test whether the weather reduces your activity level.

In addition to fitness tracker data, Exist can pull information from other sources to draw larger conclusions. Connect your social media accounts to the app to see how your activity patterns match up against the tweets you post. Use the RescueTime browser plug-in to reveal whether exercise changes your daily productivity. Exist can also crunch data from your email and Spotify account.

Exist logs your data and points out patterns. Exist

After you’ve been using Exist for a while, you might get an email telling you that you’re most active on Wednesdays, or that your mood is usually better on a Sunday—and how all that relates to your music listening history or social media activity. On top of this existing setup, Exist adds new features on a regular basis.

The app wraps all this information up in a polished web interface that gives you an intuitive, at-a-glance set of charts and readouts for all the data it’s been collecting. You can export this information to another program any time you like. The one downside is that Exist isn’t free to use: The service will set you back $6 a month or $57 a year, though there is a 30-day trial you can take advantage of to see if you like it first.

3. Compete with your friends

Don’t keep all your fitness data to yourself—share it with your friends for some extra motivation or a sense of competitiveness (how competitive you want to get is up to you and your social circle). Most trackers and companion apps come with some way to share your activity with other people, though Google Fit is one of the big names that doesn’t—at least not yet.

If you’ve got an Apple Watch, for instance, then you can let family and friends in on the progress you’re making towards your goals, although they will also need an Apple Watch running watchOS 3. Open the Activity app on your connected iPhone, then tap Sharing and Get Started. Hit the plus button to add the relevant contacts. Stats shared by your fitness buddies can be found on the Activity pane on the watch itself, and you can fire off messages of encouragement (or ridicule) to them through the watch as well.

Most fitness apps, including Strava, include some kind of social component. Strava

Another example is the popular running and cycling app Strava. Here, you need to tap the Find Friends button (an icon of two silhouettes) on your profile and then pick people from your list of contacts or Facebook friends. Once you’re connected to other Strava users, you can see their activities, tag them in rides and runs, and get some extra motivation as part of a wider group. You can also post details of an activity on social media networks by selecting the Share option on any GPS-based activity you’ve logged.

Making your fitness tracking social has the added benefit of keeping you interested in logging your progress—when you might otherwise lose the initial buzz of quantifying all of your daily activities. Even if you’re not at the top of your group’s own private leaderboard, you’ve at least got another reason to stay engaged with your fitness apps and devices.

4. Consolidate your data

If you want to aggregate your fitness data from multiple apps and devices into one place, you have several options. Apple Health and Google Fit aren’t your openly choices, but at the moment, they’re probably the best for the job. If you own an iPhone or an Android phone, then you already have everything you’ll need to get started. Apple Health comes pre-installed on iOS, and Google Fit comes pre-installed on many Android devices (if not, you can download it for free).

These apps do have their differences: Apple Health provides a more comprehensive overview of your whole well-being, while Google Fit acts more like a basic fitness tracker. However, they both track your daily activities via the sensors on your phone and data piped in from other apps—which is why we’re mention them here. For more details, you can check out our full guide to Apple Health and Google Fit.

Sleep as Android
Sleep as Android, above, is one of many apps that plugs into Google Fit. David Nield/Popular Science

Instead of using your phone to track your behavior for these apps, you can buy dedicated fitness trackers. The Apple Watch works seamlessly with Apple Health, and Android Wear smartwatches work automatically with Google Fit. Even if you prefer third-party hardware, the Misfit and Withings brands support both Apple Health and Google Health. Unfortunately, Fitbit supports neither, as it prefers to keep its data locked inside its own app.

In addition to physical trackers you can use third-party fitness apps to provide more information for Apple Health or Google Fit. Strava, Runtastic, and Runkeeper, among other options, work well with the two aggregation apps. If you’re thinking about adding new apps to your fitness-monitoring regime, see if they can pipe data into the health platform already installed on your phone. Happy tracking!