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Apps for Fitness Integrated with Wearables. How to Create an Activity Tracking App

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Wearable technology is invading all spheres of life and nowhere more so than in healthcare and sports. People’s self-interest and self-analysis make health and activity tracking wearables the most popular types of wearable technology at the moment.

A survey conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) shows that, “Half of US wearable device owners prefer fitness bands over other types of wearable technology. Smartwatches, which can also act as effective devices for activity tracking, hold second place.”

People resort to technology to learn something about themselves while working out at the gym or riding a bike. They want to know how many calories they’ve burned, how many miles they’ve walked, or what their heart rate is. Activity tracking wearables can even track sleep patterns, measure sunlight exposure or blood pressure.

What’s in it for businesses and developers

Wearable technology offers enormous opportunities for sports, healthcare, retail and clothing industries and will lead to the fusion and cooperation between these market segments for mutual benefit.

Brands already form strategic partnerships to commercialize their inventions and create products never seen before. Just like Jawbone and AmEx did with their UP fitness tracker which allows users to make payments, or Google and Levi’s with their “smarty pants”.

The wearable tech boom takes mobile app development to a whole new level. Even though wearables can provide continuous data flow and can make individual data collection much more accurate, they still lag behind in terms of processing and analyzing the data due to limited memory and computing power. The ability to sync data between wearables and smartphones makes wearable technology more effective in terms of performance and UX. Integration with wearable devices opens a whole new world for mobile app developers and provides the opportunity to create a whole new plethora of apps. That’s why health & fitness app development is among the hottest topics right now.

In this article we describe what activity tracking utilities are available at the moment and what features a great fitness application should include.

Before going any further it’s essential to understand how wearables actually calculate all those statistics that will eventually appear in your fitness app. Here’s a quick crash course.

Activity tracking: let’s take a closer look under the hood and see how it works

Wearable devices contain specially designed tiny microcomputers, known as SoCs (System-on-a-Chip), like ‘Curie’ module from Intel or Snapdragon Wear from Qualcomm. They function with low-power motion sensors and a battery which can last for weeks while continuously monitoring different activities and health parameters of your body. Wireless technology like Bluetooth allows wearables to send this real-time activity data to other devices.

Most of today’s fitness trackers are packed with different motion sensors: the 3-axis accelerometer tracks movement, the 3-axis gyroscope determines orientation and rotation in space, the altimeter measures altitude. The raw data collected by these sensors can then be converted into number of steps taken or calories burned by applying complex algorithms. Of course these algorithms cannot rely solely on the data provided by the sensors, personal information like age, gender, height and weight are essential to produce accurate results. Most fitness tracking apps come with the ability to add this data when a user is asked to fill out profile information.

More advanced fitness trackers contain bioimpedance and optical sensors which are used to measure heart rate, or UV sensors that measure sun exposure.
The more sensors a wearable has, the more accurate it can be in terms of the statistics that it provides.

Some activity tracking wearables may come with built-in GPS navigation to track movement more precisely, but because of its heavy battery drain, most manufacturers choose to exclude this feature. Moreover, if a tracker can be paired with a smartphone, it’s better to use GPS available on the smartphone.

Wearables can operate as standalone devices but due to limited functionality in terms of UI and processing power, they still require integration with smartphones.

The applications that run directly on wearables are also limited in functionality in comparison to mobile apps on smartphones. The size of the screen limits the amount of information that can be displayed to the user.

The ability to create fitness apps is actually possible without the need for wearable devices. A smartphone can track activities by using its own built-in sensors, but wearables can do it more accurately and on a much greater scale.

Also there are some vital signs which are difficult to measure accurately with a smartphone, like blood pressure or pulse rate. All this makes a wearable device, like a fitness band or smartwatch, a much more effective and advanced means of monitoring activity. The format of wearable devices is much more convenient for fitness tracking too. Compare the difference between running with a smartphone in your pocket and wearing a compact band on your wrist. Which one would you choose?

In regards to the fitness app development itself, developers now have a whole set of tools, like SDKs and APIs, at their disposal that let them write fitness applications compatible with a variety of wearable devices. It is essential for a fitness app to be able to pull activity data not only from a smartphone but also from any wearable gadget out there. Both Apple and Google provide special APIs (GoogleFit and HealthKit) that contain all that is necessary to build complete fitness applications which are full of different features, like diagrams, timelines, charts, maps, progress bars, etc. They allow developers to access and process sensor data collected directly on their platforms as well as sensor data sent from different wearable devices. Additionally, major wearable manufacturers, like Fitbit, Jawbone and Garmin also provide developers with their own APIs for their devices.

Now that we have clarified how activity tracking works, let’s see how it can be utilized in a fitness application.

Don’t forget about UX

Before diving into more technical stuff, let’s talk about the basic features of a great fitness application. They are not related to activity tracking, but are essential for providing top-notch UX:

#1 – Personalization

A personal account is absolutely vital for a fitness app. Adding personal information like age, gender, height and weight gives the fitness app the ability to accurately track your activities.

A personal account will also allow a user to customize the application to their needs:

  • plan personal exercise routines
  • save statistics
  • synchronize it with a social network account
  • goal setting (such as losing weight or a new distance to run)

#2 – Social sharing

Integration with social media accounts allows users to share their accomplishments and even creates competition among others within the same community. This helps people stay motivated and encourages them to raise the bar and to achieve more.

For example Nike+ Run Club gives its users the ability to share their runs with their friends via Facebook, Twitter or Path. Friends can “Cheer each other on” while they are running.

#3 – Notifications

Regularity is the key to success in sports. Push notifications and in-app messages are very useful tactics which help keep users motivated toward achieving their goals. A fitness application can remind its users about the next workout, or it can send messages to its users which will encourage them not to stop while they are running and to keep going.

#5 – Custom workout routines

This feature allows a user to design and manage their own workout program by selecting specific exercises its frequency and intensity, and even setting a recovery time. A workout program may include different activities: warm-ups, aerobic fitness, core strength exercises etc. In order not to get bored, a user can always alternate among different activities.
Many fitness apps offer hundreds of workout routines for a user to choose from, but only a few allow a user to craft their own workout routine tailored to their needs and abilities, as it is implemented in JEFIT.

Activity tracking features

Now let’s take a closer look at the features which are the essence of a fitness tracking app. This list is by no means complete. Each new generation of smartphones and wearable devices are released with more features and capabilities:

#1 – Movement tracking

Tracking motion is easily achieved and accurately calculated. Actually, a fitness app doesn’t need a wearable device to count steps, stairs, miles or measure the speed or direction of movement. A set of motion sensors inside a modern smartphone can easily do all of that with high accuracy. They can even distinguish between walking and running. For example, iPhone7 has built-in barometer, three-axis gyroscope, accelerometer, proximity sensor, ambient light sensor, digital compass, GPS and GLONASS navigations. Apple Health and Google Fit could serve as good examples of such apps that can only rely on detectors built into your phone and don’t rely on any additional devices.

#2 – Geolocation

Geolocation allows an app to determine the user’s location. With this feature, users can track their current position, build walking and running routes and see their achievements and their progress that they have made on the map.

There are many ways to calculate geolocation which includes an IP address, cell phone triangulation, WiFi positioning etc. However, the most trusted and accurate source of location data are services like GPS or GLONASS. The downside to these services is that they cause heavy battery drain.

#3 – Measuring heart rate

There are two types of sensors that can be used for measuring HR:

  • optical sensors shine a light into the blood vessels in your wrist, and then detect the changes in blood volume that occur each time the heart beats and pumps blood throughout the body;
  • bioimpedance sensors measure the resistance of the skin to tiny electric currents. They are more accurate and consume less power.

Both of these methods of measuring HR require direct contact with the skin. That’s why they aren’t usually implemented in smartphones but rather in different types of wearables, like wristbands or smartwatches. On the other hand, as with movement tracking, HR can be measured without resorting to additional devices. For example, Instant Heart Rate allows a user to measure their HR by placing the tip of their index finger on the phone’s camera.

#4 – Calorie expenditure

To calculate how many calories the user has burnt doesn’t actually require an additional sensor. All that is needed is an algorithm and the data that is already available. Actually different apps use different algorithms, which means that they can produce different results. For example, Wahoo Fitness uses an algorithm that includes weight, height, age, sex, and current heart rate.

#5 – Sleep tracking

Sleep tracking apps require an additional tracker such as a wristband that has contact with the body during the night. The tracker will translate wrist movements into sleep patterns, including how long a person has slept and the overall quality of their sleep. As with calories it is not very accurate.

#6 – Sun exposure

Fitness apps can either:

  • predict how long a user should stay in the sun based on UV index forecast

    For example, Ultraviolet gives tailored sun exposure advice based on weather conditions, skin type andthe current UV index;

  • or it can actually measure sunlight exposure, in which case a wearable device is required with UV sensor, like Violet.

How to get started?

The product discovery phase is the best first step you can take to lay a solid foundation for the development of your app. It includes a functional specification, UX/UI design, and a visual prototype that will give you a clear vision of the end product. On average, this phase takes 4-6 weeks.

The product discovery phase can help you:

  • define a full scope of work and develop a roadmap for the project
  • set a realistic budget for your MVP and plan your resources
  • test the waters with your audience using a visual prototype
  • craft a convincing investment pitch
  • get to know your team

Got a great idea for an app? Book the free consultation with our specialists!

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