The essence of the Quantified Self movement is to get knowledge about your mind and body using data.
You can do this by manually checking and recording everything you do. Track your vitals, your food, your workouts, your productivity, and your moods. But the manual approach is tiring. What if you just want to get started, without making too much of an effort?
Thanks to smartphones with sensors, apps, and wearables, you can start putting numbers on significant parts of your life without manual tracking.
Numbers and Estimates Are Better Than Nothing
When you use consumer technology and apps to track your life, what you’re getting are estimates. The apps, wearables, and services listed here give you the best estimates possible.
Knowing something is much better than knowing nothing.
While you shouldn’t rely on them blindingly, they do serve as a good compass. Looking at the data and how one thing in your life influences another is certainly going to be insightful. You’ll be able to see how eating something hits your sleep. Some of this is obvious, sure. But it’s one of those things where your brain can’t really register it until you see it.
It’s these insights that will motivate you to achieve your goals, be healthier or just be more mindful about your time in general. Whether you want to lose weight, gain muscle, eat better, or just want to live a healthy lifestyle.
Start With the Built-In Fitness App
The first step to quantified self doesn’t even require downloading an app. An iPhone 5s or higher has an intelligent step counter built-in. Just open the Health app and you’ll see how many steps you’ve taken today. If you have the latest Samsung phone, you’ll find similar features in the S Health app and for Xiaomi devices it’s the Mi Fit app.
If your Android device doesn’t have a built-in app for this, use Google Fit. For Android users, I would suggest you use this as the basis for all your health tracking because it integrates with a lot of third-party health and fitness apps (similar to the Health app on iPhone).
Next-Level Passive Tracking
After you’ve got a rough idea of how much it is that you move about in an average day, it’s time to start tracking more things about your life. The places you visit, how much did you walk or ran or biked.
Moves app does all this automatically. It’s available on both iOS and Android. It runs in the background and it uses GPS to track your movement. It then tags parts of your day as walking, cycling or transportation using its algorithms. And it mostly gets things right (when it doesn’t, you can go in and edit the details).
Moves is a good way to get a timeline view of your life without taking the time out to write everything. Moves isn’t without issues. Sometimes it can be a battery hog (I’m using the iPhone 6s Plus so it doesn’t bother me that much) and sometimes it just gets things wrong or jumbles up locations when they’re too close to each other.
Privacy is, of course, a big issue for Moves. A while back, the app was purchased by Facebook and that might be reason enough not to use the app. But thankfully, Moves doesn’t sync or backup any of your data until you create an account. Without which, all your data will be stored locally on your device.
Even with that concern, I would recommend you start using Moves. It provides valuable insight into your life and it integrates well with the health dashboard apps we’ll talk about below.
Track Your Workouts Using Your Smartphone
When you’re trying to be healthy, you try and do two things — watch what you eat and workout. Tracking workouts is much easier than tracking everything you eat.
For tracking your runs and bike rides, I would recommend using Strava. The app is free, has an excellent user experience, simple UI and a big helpful community of fellow runners and bikers. Plus, Strava integrates with Health app on iOS, Google Fit on Android and a lot of other health dashboard services.
Get a Wearable for Active Workout Tracking
Apple Watch is my workout pal. The activity rings tell me how well I’m doing today. In the gym, it helps me track my elliptical, treadmill and cycling workouts. The Watch has a built-in heart rate sensor that estimates just how many calories I’m burning.
An eye on my heart rate during workouts is also helpful. I know when I’m slacking off or overdoing it. If you have an iPhone, want to get into shape, and don’t mind spending $300 on a wearable, I would highly recommend the Apple Watch as a fitness tracker.
You can also dip your toes in the pool by getting the cheaper Fitbit Flex 2 (UK) or the $15 Xiaomi Mi Band 2 which comes with a heart rate sensor (although my experience with its sleep tracking hasn’t been the best).
Track Your Sleep
I tried a lot of different legit methods to help me fix my sleep cycle. I tried to go to bed early, stopped using my iPhone before bed, even tried calming green tea. Nothing worked until I went to the gym in the evening. Just like that, I could fall asleep around midnight (which is a big deal for me).
If you’re tracking how much you move about in a day, and the calories you’re burning, you might want to track your sleep as well (because there might be a direct relationship there). Get the knowledge and then try to optimize it.
You can use mobile apps like Sleep Cycle (for both iOS and Android). Connect your phone to the charger, and put it on your bed and it will track your deep and light sleep cycles. The app will even try and wake you up at just the right time (when you’re in light sleep mode).
Track Your Productivity With RescueTime
Increased productivity was one of the biggest reasons I wanted to lead a healthier life. But when you work from home at your own time, you’re never sure what productive time is. You can do rigorous manual time tracking using apps like Toggl but that itself is a time-consuming process.
For people who prominently work on a Mac or a Windows machine, RescueTime takes care of that. Install the app and it will track how you spend your time on your machine. It will automatically sort out activities in categories and will tell you how much of the time spent was productive.
RescueTime knows which apps and websites are productive and which aren’t. But you can always go in and edit the details. RescueTime’s free plan is enough for most users but you can upgrade to the premium plan for $9/month to get additional features like a focused mode, unlimited report history and more detailed reports and filters.
Track What You Eat
I’m not going to recommend calorie and food tracking to everyone because it can be such a tedious and unreliable process, especially if you don’t live in the U.S.
Watching what you eat, tracking your calories and making sure you don’t eat way more than what you’re burning off is the most important part if you’re trying to lose weight. If you’re in the US and your diet has food that is easily trackable, use the MyFitnessPal app.
Once integrated with the Health app or Google Fit, MyFitnessPal becomes a dashboard for your calories. You’ll be able to see how many calories you consumed and burned off today.
It will let you scan barcodes for things you buy off the shelf and the app makes it easy to track repeat diets (so that down the line, it doesn’t take up that much time).
MyFitnessPal also integrates with Health app and Google Fit. So, you can see the calories you’ve burned and consumed in a day, in a single page (and that can make you more aware).
Track Your Weight
If you’re trying to lose weight, I’m sure you check your weight quite often. The first thing I do after waking up is to step on the weighing scale and record my weight in the Health app on my iPhone using an automated workflow.
You can use Google Fit to record your weight as well. Health app, Fitbit, and Google Fit will let you track your weight loss/gain journey visually using graphs. MyFitnessPal also has a feature to quickly record your weight.
Turn All That Data Into a Dashboard
So you’re using different apps for tracking your movement, bike rides, workouts, sleep, weight, productivity, and meals. That’s great.
But to get an overview, you need all your data in one centralized place, or else it’s just “Quantified Parts of Self”.
The Health app and Google Fit app do this to a certain extent. But the winner for me is the Gyroscope app for iPhone (it also has a web component you can use until the Android app comes out).
Once you’ve signed up for free and have connected the Health app, Strava, Moves, Fitbit and RescueTime, Gyroscope is now the only app you need to open at the end of the day to see how your day went.
Gyroscope is a beautifully designed app that generates some amazing looking visuals of your life. You can then export them as images and share them on social media platforms. Gyroscope’s free plan is good enough for beginners. To track more things like sleep analysis, food and water tracking, yearly reports, more layouts and to sync your entire Health app history, you can pay $7.99/month.
Exist.io is a similar service. It’s web-based but also has iOS and Android apps. While Gyroscope is about having a single dashboard to view details for your life, Exist is more about analyzing your data to give you insights. Sometimes those insights are useful, sometimes they’re just plain dumb. But with Exist, there’s no free plan.
Download — Health Tracking by Gyroscope for iOS (Free)
Just Track Your Habits Manually
One of the few things I track manually is my habits and goals. Using an app like Productive on iOS and HabitHub on Android, you can check in every time you do something. For me, I’m trying to either walk or go to the gym every day. The only way I’m going to be accountable for it is if I track it.
So, I go into Productive at the end of the day and mark activities as Done. As habit trackers focus on maintaining a streak (and show you visually), it really helps you motivate to do it every single day (or you break the chain and that doesn’t feel so good).
Don’t Shy Away From Some Healthy Competition
Add your friends to Strava, Fitbit, Apple Watch Sharing, Gyroscope and other fitness tracking apps that you use. It’s silly, but watching your friends track their workouts, eating healthier, and beating your average step count for the week is an effective motivator.
What kind of health and life-tracking apps and services are you using? Has it been helpful? Share with us in the comments below.